Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults

What are adult brain and spinal cord tumors?

Brain and spinal cord tumors are masses of abnormal cells that have grown out of control. In most other parts of the body, it is very important to distinguish between benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) tumors. Benign tumors in other parts of the body do not grow into nearby tissues or spread to distant areas, so they are almost never life threatening. One of the main reasons cancers are so dangerous is because they can spread throughout the body.

Although brain tumors rarely spread to other parts of the body, most of them can spread through the brain tissue. Even so-called benign tumors can, as they grow, destroy and compress normal brain tissue, causing damage that is often disabling and sometimes fatal. For this reason, doctors usually speak of “brain tumors” rather than “brain cancers.” The main concerns with brain and spinal cord tumors are how readily they spread through the rest of the brain or spinal cord and whether they can be removed and not come back.

Brain and spinal cord tumors are different in adults and children. They often form in different areas, develop from different cell types, and may have a different outlook and treatment.

This document refers only to adult tumors. Brain and spinal cord tumors in children are discussed in a separate document.

To understand brain and spinal cord tumors, it helps to know about the normal structure and function of the central nervous system.

The central nervous system

The central nervous system (CNS) is the medical name for the brain and spinal cord.

The brain is the center of thought, feeling, memory, speech, vision, hearing, movement, and much more. The spinal cord and special nerves in the head called cranial nerves help carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. These messages tell our muscles how to move, transmit information gathered by our senses, and help coordinate the functions of our internal organs.

The brain is protected by the skull. Likewise, the spinal cord is protected by the bones (vertebrae) of the spinal column.

The brain and spinal cord are surrounded and cushioned by a special liquid, called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Cerebrospinal fluid is made by the choroid plexus, which is located in spaces within the brain called ventricles. The ventricles and the spaces around the brain and spinal cord are filled with CSF.

The main areas of the brain include the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem. Each of these parts has a special function.

Cerebrum: The cerebrum is the large, outer part of the brain. It has 2 hemispheres (halves) and controls reasoning, thought, emotion, and language. It is also responsible for planned (voluntary) muscle movements (throwing a ball, walking, chewing, etc.) and for taking in and interpreting sensory information such as vision, hearing, smell, touch, and pain.

The symptoms caused by a tumor in a cerebral hemisphere depend on where the tumor starts. Common symptoms include:

  • Seizures
  • Trouble speaking
  • A change of mood such as depression
  • A change in personality
  • Weakness or paralysis of part of the body
  • Changes in vision, hearing, or other sensations

Basal ganglia: The basal ganglia are structures deeper within the brain that help control our muscle movements. Tumors or other problems in this part of the brain typically cause weakness, but in rare cases can cause tremor or other involuntary movements.

Cerebellum: The cerebellum lies under the cerebrum at the back part of the brain. It helps coordinate movement. Tumors of the cerebellum can cause problems with coordination in walking, trouble with fine movements of arms and legs, problems swallowing or synchronizing eye movements, and changes in rhythm of speech.

Brain stem: The brain stem is the lower part of the brain that connects to the spinal cord. It contains bundles of very long nerve fibers that carry signals controlling muscles and sensation or feeling between the cerebrum and the rest the body. Special centers in the brain stem also help control breathing and the beating of the heart. Also, most cranial nerves (which carry signals directly between the brain and the face, eyes, tongue, mouth, and some other areas) start in the brain stem.

Tumors in this critical area of the brain may cause weakness, stiff muscles, or problems with sensation, eye movement, hearing, facial movement, or swallowing. Double vision is a common early symptom of brain stem tumors, as are problems with coordination in walking. Because the brain stem is a small area that is so essential for life, it may not be possible to surgically remove tumors in this area.

Spinal cord: The spinal cord, like the brain stem, contains bundles of very long nerve fibers that carry signals controlling muscles, sensation or feeling, and bladder and bowel control. Spinal cord tumors may cause weakness, paralysis, or numbness. Because the spinal cord is such a narrow structure, tumors within it usually cause symptoms on both sides of the body (for example, weakness or numbness of both legs). This is different from brain tumors, which usually affect only one side of the body.

The nerves that reach the arms begin in the spinal cord at the level of the neck (cervical spine). Nerves that branch off the spinal cord to the legs, bowel, and bladder arise in the back (thoracic and lumbar spine). Tumors of the spinal cord in the neck can cause symptoms in the arms and legs, as well as affect bowel and bladder function. Spinal cord tumors below the neck may only affect the legs and bowel and bladder function.

Cranial nerves: The cranial nerves extend directly out of the base of the brain (as opposed to coming out of the spinal cord). Tumors starting in cranial nerves may cause vision problems, trouble swallowing, hearing loss in one or both ears, or facial paralysis, numbness, or pain.

Types of cells and body tissues in the brain and spinal cord

The brain and spinal cord have many kinds of tissues and cells, which can develop into different types of tumors. People with these tumors can have different prognoses (outlooks) and may be treated differently.

Neurons (nerve cells): These are the most important cells in the brain. They transmit chemical and electric signals that determine thought, memory, emotion, speech, muscle movement, and just about everything else that the brain and spinal cord do. Neurons send these signals through their nerve fibers (axons). Axons in the brain tend to be short, while those in the spinal cord can be as long as several feet.

Unlike many other types of cells that can grow and divide to repair damage from injury or disease, neurons in the brain and spinal cord largely stop dividing about a year after birth (with a few exceptions). Neurons do not usually form tumors, but they are often damaged by tumors that start nearby.

Glial cells: Glial cells are the supporting cells of the brain. Most brain and spinal cord tumors develop from glial cells. These tumors are sometimes referred to as gliomas.

There are 3 types of glial cells – astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and ependymal cells. A fourth cell type called microglia is part of the immune system and is not truly a glial cell.

  • Astrocytes help support and nourish neurons. When the brain is injured, astrocytes form scar tissue that helps repair the damage. The main tumors starting in these cells are called astrocytomas or glioblastomas.
  • Oligodendrocytes make myelin, a fatty substance that surrounds and insulates the nerve cell axons of the brain and spinal cord. This helps neurons send electric signals through the axons. Tumors starting in these cells are called oligodendrogliomas.
  • Ependymal cells line the ventricles (fluid-filled areas) within the central part of the brain and form part of the pathway through which CSF flows. Tumors starting in these cells are called ependymomas.
  • Microglia are the immune (infection fighting) cells of the central nervous system.

Neuroectodermal cells: These are very early forms of nervous system cells that are probably involved in brain cell development. They are found throughout the brain, although they are not often seen in the adult central nervous system. The most common tumors that come from these cells develop in the cerebellum and are called medulloblastomas.

Meninges: These are layers of tissue that line and protect the brain and spinal cord. CSF travels through spaces formed by the meninges. The most common tumors that start in these tissues are called meningiomas.

Choroid plexus: The choroid plexus is the area of the brain within the ventricles that makes CSF, which nourishes and protects the brain.

Pituitary gland and hypothalamus: The pituitary is a small gland at the base of the brain. It is connected to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Both help regulate the activity of several other glands. For example, they control the amount of thyroid hormone made by the thyroid gland, the production and release of milk by the breasts, and the amount of male or female hormones made by the testicles or ovaries. They also make growth hormone, which stimulates body growth, and vasopressin, which regulates water balance by the kidneys.

The growth of tumors in or near the pituitary or hypothalamus, as well as surgery and/or radiation therapy in this area, can interfere with these functions. As a result, a person may have low levels of one or more hormones after treatment and may need to take hormones to correct any deficiencies.

Pineal gland: The pineal gland is not strictly part of the brain. It is, in fact, a small endocrine gland that sits between the cerebral hemispheres. It makes melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, in response to changes in light.

Blood-brain barrier: The inner lining of the small blood vessels (capillaries) in the brain and spinal cord creates a very selective barrier between the blood and the tissues of the central nervous system. This barrier normally helps maintain the brain’s metabolic balance and keeps harmful toxins from getting into the brain. Unfortunately, it also keeps out most chemotherapy drugs that are used to kill cancer cells, which in some cases limits their usefulness.


Types of brain and spinal cord tumors in adults

Tumors that start in the brain (primary brain tumors) are not the same as tumors that start in other organs, such as the lung or breast, and then spread to the brain (metastatic or secondary brain tumors). In adults, metastatic tumors to the brain are actually more common than primary brain tumors. These tumors are not treated the same way. For example, breast or lung cancers that spread to the brain are treated differently from tumors that start in the brain.

This document is only about primary brain and spinal cord tumors, not those that have spread from elsewhere in the body.

Unlike cancers that start in other parts of the body, tumors that start in the brain or spinal cord rarely spread to distant organs. Even so, tumors of the brain or spinal cord are rarely considered benign (non-cancerous). They can still cause damage by growing and spreading into nearby areas, where they can destroy normal brain tissue. And unless they are completely removed or destroyed, most brain or spinal cord tumors will continue to grow and eventually be life-threatening.

Primary brain tumors can start in almost any type of tissue or cell in the brain or spinal cord. Some tumors have a mixture of cell types. Tumors in different areas of the central nervous system may be treated differently and have a different prognosis (outlook).


Gliomas are not a specific type of brain tumor. Glioma is a general term for a group of tumors that start in glial cells. A number of tumors can be considered gliomas, including glioblastoma (also known as glioblastoma multiforme), astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, and ependymomas. About 3 out of 10 of all brain tumors are gliomas. Most fast-growing brain tumors are gliomas.


Astrocytomas are tumors that start in glial cells called astrocytes. About 2 out of 10 brain tumors are astrocytomas.

Most astrocytomas can spread widely throughout the brain and blend with the normal brain tissue, which can make them very hard to remove by surgery. Sometimes they spread along the CSF pathways. It is very rare for them to spread outside of the brain or spinal cord.

Astrocytomas are often classified as low grade, intermediate grade, or high grade, based on how the cells look under the microscope.

  • Low-grade astrocytomas tend to be slow growing.
  • Intermediate-grade astrocytomas, or anaplastic astrocytomas, grow at a moderate rate.
  • The highest-grade astrocytoma, known as glioblastoma (or glioblastoma multiforme), is the fastest growing. These tumors make up about two-thirds of astrocytomas and are the most common malignant brain tumors in adults.

Some low-grade types of astrocytomas called non-infiltrating astrocytomas do not usually grow into nearby tissues and tend to have a good prognosis. These include juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas and dysembryoplastic neuroepithelial tumors (DNETs). They are more common in children than in adults.


These tumors start in brain cells called oligodendrocytes. Like astrocytomas, most of these can grow into (infiltrate) nearby brain tissue and cannot be completely removed by surgery. Oligodendrogliomas sometimes spread along the CSF pathways but rarely spread outside the brain or spinal cord. Very aggressive forms of these tumors are known as anaplastic oligodendrogliomas. Only about 2% of brain tumors are oligodendrogliomas.


These tumors arise from ependymal cells, which line the ventricles. They can range from fairly low-grade (less aggressive) tumors to higher grade ones, which are called anaplastic ependymomas. Only about 2% of brain tumors are ependymomas.

Ependymomas are more likely to spread along the CSF pathways than other gliomas but do not spread outside the brain or spinal cord. Ependymomas may block the exit of CSF from the ventricles, causing the ventricles to become very large – a condition called hydrocephalus.

Unlike astrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas, ependymomas usually do not grow into (infiltrate) normal brain tissue. As a result, some (but not all) ependymomas can be completely removed and cured by surgery. But because they can spread along ependymal surfaces and CSF pathways, treating them can sometimes be difficult. Spinal cord ependymomas have the greatest chance of surgical cure, but treatment can cause side effects related to nerve damage.


Meningiomas begin in the meninges, the layers of tissue that surround the outer part of the brain and spinal cord. Meningiomas account for about 1 out of 3 primary brain and spinal cord tumors. They are the most common brain tumors in adults (although strictly speaking, they are not actually brain tumors).

The risk of these tumors increases with age. They occur about twice as often in women. In some cases these tumors run in families, especially those with neurofibromatosis, a syndrome in which people develop many benign tumors of nerve tissue.

Meningiomas are often assigned a grade, based on how the cells look under the microscope.

  • Grade I (benign) tumors have cells that look the most like normal cells. They make up about 80% of meningiomas. Most of these can be cured by surgery, but some grow very close to vital structures in the brain or cranial nerves and cannot be cured by surgery alone.
  • Grade II (atypical) meningiomas have cells that look slightly more abnormal. About 15% to 20% of meningiomas are grade II. They are more likely to come back (recur) after surgery.
  • Grade III (anaplastic) meningiomas have cells that look the most abnormal. They make up only about 1% to 3% of meningiomas. They tend to grow quickly and are the most likely to come back after treatment. Some may even spread to other parts of the body.


Medulloblastomas develop from neuroectodermal cells (primitive nerve cells) in the cerebellum. They are fast-growing tumors and often spread throughout the CSF pathways, but they can be treated by surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Medulloblastomas occur much more often in children than in adults. They are part of a class of tumors called primitive neuroectodermal tumors (PNETs) that can also start in other parts of the central nervous system. They are discussed in more detail in our document, Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children.


Gangliogliomas contain both neurons and glial cells. These tumors are very uncommon in adults and can usually be cured by surgery alone or surgery combined with radiation therapy.

Schwannomas (neurilemmomas)

Schwannomas develop from Schwann cells, which surround and insulate cranial nerves and other nerves. They make up about 9% of all CNS tumors.

Schwannomas are benign tumors. They can arise from any cranial nerve. When they form on the cranial nerve responsible for hearing and balance near the cerebellum they are called vestibular schwannomas or acoustic neuromas. They may also start on spinal nerves after the point where they have left the spinal cord. When this happens, they can press on the spinal cord, causing weakness, sensory loss, and bowel and bladder problems.


These slow-growing tumors start above the pituitary gland but below the brain itself. They may press on the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, causing hormone problems. Because they start very close to the optic nerves, they can also cause vision problems. Their tendency to stick to these important structures can make them hard to remove completely without damaging vision or hormone balance. Craniopharyngiomas are more common in children, but they are sometimes seen in adults.

Other tumors that can start in or near the brain


These rare tumors start in the bone at the base of the skull or at the lower end of the spine. Chordomas don’t start in the central nervous system, but they can injure the nearby brain or spinal cord by pressing on it. These tumors are treated with surgery if possible, often followed by radiation therapy, but they tend to come back in the same area after treatment, causing more damage. They usually do not spread to other organs. For more information on chordomas, see our document Bone Cancer.

Non-Hodgkin lymphomas

Lymphomas are cancers that start in cells called lymphocytes (one of the main cell types of the immune system). Lymphomas usually form in lymph nodes, which are small, bean-sized collections of lymphocytes found throughout the body. Most lymphomas start in other parts of the body, but some may start in the CNS. These lymphomas are more common in people with immune system problems, such as those infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Because of new treatments for AIDS, CNS lymphomas have become less common in recent years.

These lymphomas often grow quickly and can be hard to treat. Recent advances in chemotherapy, however, have improved the outlook for people with these cancers. For more information on CNS lymphomas (including treatment), see our document, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.


What are the key statistics about brain and spinal cord tumors?

The American Cancer Society’s estimates for brain and spinal cord tumors in the United States are for 2013. They include both adults and children.

  • About 23,130 malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord (12,770 in males and 10,360 in females) will be diagnosed. These numbers would likely be much higher if benign tumors were also included.
  • About 14,080 people (7,930 males and 6,150 females) will die from these tumors.

Overall, the chance that a person will develop a malignant tumor of the brain or spinal cord in his or her lifetime is less than 1% (about 1 in 140 for a man and 1 in 180 for a woman).

Survival rates vary widely, depending on the type of tumor. Survival rates for some of the more common types of brain and spinal cord tumors are discussed in the section, “Survival rates for selected adult brain and spinal cord tumors.”


What are the risk factors for brain and spinal cord tumors?

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease such as a brain or spinal cord tumor. Different types of cancer have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, you can change. Others, like your age or family history, can’t be changed.

But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not always mean that a person will get the disease, and many people get tumors without having any known risk factors. Even if a person has a risk factor, it is often very hard to know how much it may have contributed to the tumor.

Most brain tumors are not associated with any known risk factors and have no obvious cause. But there are a few factors that may raise the risk of brain tumors.

Radiation exposure

The best known environmental risk factor for brain tumors is radiation exposure, most often from some type of radiation therapy. For example, before the risks of radiation were recognized, children with ringworm of the scalp (a fungal infection) were sometimes treated with low-dose radiation therapy, which was later found to increase their risk of brain tumors as they got older.

Today, most radiation-induced brain tumors are caused by radiation to the head given to treat other cancers. They occur most often in people who received radiation to the brain as children as part of their treatment for leukemia. These brain tumors usually develop around 10 to 15 years after the radiation.

Radiation-induced tumors are still fairly rare, but because of the increased risk (as well as the other side effects), radiation therapy to the head is only given after carefully weighing the possible benefits and risks. For most patients with other cancers involving the brain or head, the benefits of radiation therapy far outweigh the risk of developing a brain tumor years later.

Family history

Most people with brain tumors do not have a family history of the disease, but in rare cases brain and spinal cord cancers run in families. In general, patients with familial cancer syndromes tend to have many tumors that first occur when they are young. Some of these families have well-defined disorders, such as:

Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1)

This genetic disorder, also known as von Recklinghausen disease, is the most common syndrome linked to brain or spinal cord tumors. People with this condition have higher risks of schwannomas, meningiomas, and certain types of gliomas, as well as neurofibromas (benign tumors of peripheral nerves). Changes in the NF1 gene cause this disorder. These changes are inherited from a parent in about half of all cases. In the other half, the NF1 gene changes occur before birth in people whose parents did not have this condition.

Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2)

This condition, which is much less common than NF1, is associated with vestibular schwannomas (acoustic neuromas) on both sides of the head and, in some patients, meningiomas or spinal cord ependymomas. Changes in the NF2 gene are responsible for neurofibromatosis type 2. Like NF1, the gene changes are inherited in about half of cases or may occur before birth in children without a family history.

Tuberous sclerosis

People with this condition may have subependymal giant cell astrocytomas (low-grade astrocytomas that develop beneath the ependymal cells of the ventricles), along with other benign tumors of the brain, skin, heart, kidneys, and other organs. It is caused by changes in either the TSC1 or the TSC2 gene. These gene changes can be inherited from a parent, but in most cases they develop in people without a family history.

Von Hippel-Lindau disease

People with this condition tend to develop benign or cancerous tumors in different parts of the body, including hemangioblastomas (blood vessel tumors) in the brain, spinal cord, or retina, as well as tumors of the inner ear, kidney, adrenal gland, and pancreas. It is caused by changes in the VHL gene. Most often the gene changes are inherited, but in some cases the changes happen before birth in people whose parents don’t have them.

Li-Fraumeni syndrome

People with this condition are at higher risk for developing gliomas, along with breast cancer, soft tissue sarcomas, leukemia, and adrenal gland cancer, and certain other types of cancer. It is caused by changes in the TP53 gene.

Other inherited conditions, including Gorlin syndrome (basal cell nevus syndrome), Turcot syndrome, and Cowden syndrome are also linked with increased risks of certain types of brain and spinal cord tumors. Some families may have genetic disorders that are not well recognized or that may even be unique to a particular family.

Immune system disorders

People with impaired immune systems have an increased risk of developing lymphomas of the brain or spinal cord. Lymphomas are cancers of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights disease. Primary lymphoma of the central nervous system (CNS lymphoma) is less common than lymphoma that develops outside the brain.

Deficiencies of the immune system may be congenital (present at birth), or they may be caused by treatments for other cancers, treatment to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, or diseases such as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Factors with uncertain, controversial, or unproven effects on brain tumor risk

Cell phone use

This has been the subject of a great deal of debate in recent years. Cell phones emit (give off) radiofrequency rays, a form of energy on the electromagnetic spectrum between FM radio waves and those used in microwave ovens, radar, and satellite stations. Cell phones do not emit ionizing radiation, the type that can cause cancer by damaging the DNA inside cells. Still, there have been concerns that the phones, whose antennae are built-in and therefore are placed close to the head when being used, might somehow raise the risk of brain tumors.

Some studies have suggested a possible increased risk of brain tumors or of vestibular schwannomas with cell phone use, but most of the larger studies done so far have not found an increased risk, either overall or among specific types of tumors. Still, there are very few studies of long-term use (10 years or more), and cell phones haven’t been around long enough to determine the possible risks of lifetime use. The same is true of any possible higher risks in children, who are increasingly using cell phones. Cell phone technology also continues to change, and it’s not clear how this might affect any risk.

These risks are being studied, but it will probably be many years before firm conclusions can be made. In the meantime, for people concerned about the possible risks, there are ways to lower your exposure, such as using an earpiece to move the phone itself away from the head. For more information, see our document, Cellular Phones.

Other factors

Other environmental factors such as exposure to vinyl chloride (a chemical used to manufacture plastics), petroleum products, and certain other chemicals have been linked with an increased risk of brain tumors in some studies but not in others.

Exposure to aspartame (a sugar substitute), exposure to electromagnetic fields from power lines and transformers, and infection with certain viruses have been suggested as possible risk factors, but most researchers agree that there is no convincing evidence to link these factors to brain tumors. Research on these and other potential risk factors continues.


Do we know what causes brain and spinal cord tumors in adults?

The cause of most brain and spinal cord tumors is not fully understood. But researchers have found some of the chemical changes that occur in normal brain cells that may lead them to form brain tumors.

Normal human cells grow and function based mainly on the information contained in each cell’s chromosomes. Chromosomes are long strands of DNA in each cell. Brain and spinal cord tumors, like other tumors, are caused by changes in a person’s DNA. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes — the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than how we look.

Some genes control when our cells grow, divide into new cells, and die. Certain genes that help cells grow and divide are called oncogenes. Others that slow down cell division, or cause cells to die at the right time, are called tumor suppressor genes. Cells sometimes make mistakes in copying their DNA when dividing into 2 cells. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. These gene changes can be inherited from a parent, but more often they happen during a person’s lifetime when cells in the body make mistakes as they divide to form 2 new cells.

In recent years, researchers have found the gene changes that cause some rare inherited syndromes (like neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and von Hippel-Lindau syndrome) and increase the risk of developing some brain and spinal cord tumors. For example, the Li-Fraumeni syndrome is caused by changes in the TP53 tumor suppressor gene. Normally, this gene prevents cells with damaged DNA from growing. Changes in this gene increase the risk of developing brain tumors (particularly gliomas), as well as some other cancers.

In most cases, it is not known why people without inherited syndromes develop changes in cells of their central nervous system. Most risk factors for cancer somehow damage genes. For example, tobacco smoke is a risk factor for lung cancer and several other cancers because it contains chemicals that can damage genes. The brain is relatively protected from tobacco smoke and other cancer-causing chemicals that we might breathe or eat, so these factors are not likely to play a major role in these cancers.

Several different gene changes must usually occur in normal cells before they become cancerous. There are many kinds of brain tumors, each of which may have different sets of gene changes. A number of gene or chromosome changes have been found in different brain tumor types, but there are probably many others that have not yet been found.

Researchers now understand some of the gene changes that may occur in different types of brain tumors, but it’s still not clear what might cause these changes. Some gene changes may be inherited, but most brain and spinal cord tumors are not the result of known inherited syndromes. Other gene changes may just be a random event that sometimes happens inside a cell, without having an external cause.

Other than radiation, there are no known lifestyle-related or environmental causes of brain tumors, so it is important to remember that there is nothing these people could have done to prevent these cancers.


Can brain and spinal cord tumors in adults be prevented?

The risk of many cancers in adults can be reduced with certain lifestyle changes (such as staying at a healthy weight or quitting smoking). But most central nervous system tumors have not been linked with any known risk factors. As a result, there is no known way to protect against most of these tumors at this time.


Can brain and spinal cord tumors in adults be found early?

At this time there are no widely recommended tests used to screen for brain and spinal cord tumors. (Screening is testing for cancer in people without any symptoms.) Most brain tumors are found when a person sees a doctor because of signs or symptoms they are having (see “How are brain and spinal cord tumors in adults diagnosed?”).

In most cases, the patient’s survival is determined by their age, the type of tumor, and its location, not by how early it is detected. But as with any disease, earlier detection and treatment is likely to be helpful.

For people with certain inherited syndromes that put them at higher risk for brain tumors, such as neurofibromatosis or tuberous sclerosis, doctors may recommend frequent physical exams and other tests starting when they are young. In some cases these tests may find tumors when they are still small. Not all tumors related to these syndromes may need to be treated right away, but finding them early may help doctors monitor them so that they can be treated quickly if they begin to grow or cause problems.


How are brain and spinal cord tumors in adults diagnosed?

Brain and spinal cord tumors are usually found because of signs or symptoms a person is having. If a tumor is suspected, tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors

Signs and symptoms of brain or spinal cord tumors may occur gradually and become worse over time, or they can happen suddenly, such as a seizure.

General symptoms

Tumors in any part of the brain may cause the pressure inside the skull (known as intracranial pressure) to rise. This can be caused by growth of the tumor itself, swelling in the brain, or blockage of the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Increased pressure can lead to general symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Personality or behavior changes
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness or even coma

Headache is a common symptom of a brain tumor, occurring in about half of patients. (Of course, most headaches are not caused by tumors.)

As many as half of people with brain tumors will have seizures at some point. The type of seizure may depend on where the tumor is. Sometimes this is the first sign of a brain tumor, but fewer than 1 in 10 first seizures are caused by brain tumors.

Symptoms of tumors in different parts of the central nervous system

Tumors in different parts of the central nervous system can cause different symptoms. But these symptoms can be caused by any disease in that particular location in the brain — they do not always mean a brain tumor is present.

Brain and spinal cord tumors often cause problems with the specific functions of the region they develop in. For example:

  • Tumors in the parts of the cerebrum (the large, outer part of the brain) that control movement or sensation may cause weakness or numbness of part of the body.
  • Tumors in or near the parts of the cerebrum responsible for language may cause problems with speech or even understanding words.
  • Tumors in the front part of the cerebrum can sometimes affect thinking and personality.
  • Tumors in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia typically cause abnormal movements and an abnormal positioning of the body.
  • If the tumor is in the cerebellum, which controls coordination, a person might have trouble with walking or other everyday functions, even eating.
  • Tumors in the back part of the cerebrum, or around the pituitary gland, the optic nerve, or certain other cranial nerves can cause vision problems.
  • Tumors in or near other cranial nerves might lead to loss of hearing, balance problems, weakness of some facial muscles, or trouble swallowing.
  • Spinal cord tumors can cause numbness, weakness, or lack of coordination in the arms and/or legs, as well as bladder or bowel problems.

The brain also controls functions of some other organs, including hormone production, so brain tumors can also cause many other symptoms that aren’t listed here.

Having one or more of the symptoms above does not mean that you definitely have a brain or spinal cord tumor. All of these symptoms can have other causes. Still, if you have symptoms that suggest you might have a brain or spinal cord tumor, see your doctor so that the cause can be evaluated and treated, if needed.

Medical history and physical exam

If signs or symptoms suggest you might have a brain or spinal cord tumor, your doctor will get a complete medical history, focusing on the symptoms and when they began. The doctor will also do a neurologic exam to evaluate your brain and spinal cord function. It tests reflexes, muscle strength, eye and mouth movement, coordination, alertness, and other functions.

If the results of the exam are abnormal, your doctor may refer you to a neurologist (a doctor who specializes in nervous system diseases) or a neurosurgeon (a surgeon who specializes in nervous system diseases), who may do a more detailed neurologic exam or other tests.

Imaging tests

Your doctor may order one or more imaging tests. These tests use x-rays, strong magnets, or radioactive substances to create pictures of internal organs such as the brain and spinal cord. The pictures may be looked at by doctors specializing in this field (neurosurgeons, neurologists, and neuroradiologists) as well as by your primary doctor.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans are used most often for brain diseases. These scans will show a brain tumor, if one is present, in almost all cases, and can often tell the doctors exactly where the tumor is in the brain.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

MRI scans are very helpful in looking at the brain and spinal cord and are considered the best way to look for tumors in these areas. The images they provide are usually more detailed than those from CT scans (described below). But they do not image the bones of the skull as well as CT scans and therefore may not see the effects of tumors on the skull.

MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. The energy from the radio waves is absorbed and then released in a pattern formed by the type of body tissue and by certain diseases. A computer translates the pattern into a very detailed image of parts of the body. A contrast material called gadolinium may be injected into a vein before the scan to better see details.

MRI scans can take a long time — often up to an hour. You have to lie inside a narrow tube, which can be confining and might upset people with a fear of enclosed spaces. Newer, open MRI machines may help with this, but they may provide less detailed images and can’t be used in all cases. The machine also makes buzzing and clicking noises that may be disturbing. Some people might need medicine to help them relax for the test.

Magnetic resonance angiography: This special form of MRI (also known as MR angiography or MRA) may be done to look at the structure of the blood vessels in the brain. This can be very useful before surgery to help the surgeon plan an operation.

Magnetic resonance spectroscopy: This test (also known as MR spectroscopy or MRS) is like an MRI, except that it measures radio wave interactions with different atoms in the brain. MRS highlights some features of brain tumors that are not clearly seen by MRI. It creates graph-like results called spectra (although crude images can also be created). This may help determine the type of tumor, but in most cases a biopsy of the tumor is still needed to be sure. MRS can also be used after treatment to help determine if an area that still looks abnormal on another test is remaining tumor or if it is more likely to be scar tissue.

Magnetic resonance perfusion: For this test, also known as perfusion MRI, a contrast dye is injected quickly into a vein. A special type of MR image is then obtained to look at the amount of blood going through different parts of the brain and tumor. Tumors need a bigger blood supply than normal areas of the brain. The faster a tumor is growing, the more blood it needs.

Perfusion MRI can give doctors an idea of how quickly a tumor is growing or help show them the best place to take a biopsy. It can also be used after treatment to help determine if an area that still looks abnormal is remaining tumor or if it is more likely to be scar tissue.

Functional MRI (fMRI): This newer type of MRI looks for tiny chemical changes in an active part of the brain. It can be used to determine what part of the brain handles a function such as speech, thought, sensation, or movement. Doctors can use this to determine which parts of the brain to avoid when planning surgery or radiation therapy.

This test is similar to a standard MRI, except that you will be asked to perform specific tasks (such as answering simple questions or moving your fingers) while the scans are being done.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

The CT scan is an x-ray test that produces detailed cross-sectional images of your brain and spinal cord (or other parts of the body). Instead of taking one picture, like a regular x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you while you lie on a table. A computer then combines these pictures into images of slices of the body. Unlike a regular x-ray, a CT scan creates detailed images of the soft tissues in the body.

CT scans are not used as often as MRI scans when looking at brain or spinal cord tumors, but they do have features that make them useful in some cases. They may be used if MRI is not an option (such as in people who are very overweight or people who have a fear of enclosed spaces). CT scans also provide greater detail of the bone structures near the tumor.

Before the scan, you may get an injection of a contrast dye through an IV (intravenous) line. This helps better outline any tumors that are present. The contrast may cause some flushing (a feeling of warmth, especially in the face). Some people are allergic and get hives. Rarely, people have more serious reactions like trouble breathing or low blood pressure. Be sure to tell the doctor if you have any allergies or if you ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.

CT scans take longer than regular x-rays, but not as long as MRI scans. You need to lie still on a table while they are being done. During the test, the table slides in and out of the scanner, a ring-shaped machine that surrounds the table. Some people feel a bit confined by the ring while the pictures are being taken, although it is not as narrow as an MRI tube. Spiral CT (also known as helical CT) is now used in many medical centers. This type of CT scan uses a faster machine that reduces the dose of radiation and yields more detailed pictures.

CT angiography (CTA): For this test, you are injected with a contrast material through an IV line while you are in the CT scanner. The scan creates detailed images of the blood vessels in the brain, which can help doctors plan surgery. CT angiography can provide better details of the blood vessels in and around a tumor than MR angiography in some cases.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

For a PET scan, a radioactive substance (usually a type of sugar known as FDG) is injected into the blood. The amount of radioactivity used is very low. Because cancer cells in the body grow quickly, they absorb larger amounts of the sugar than most other cells. After about an hour, you are moved onto a table in the PET scanner. You lie on the table for about 30 minutes while a special camera creates a picture of areas of radioactivity in the body. The picture is not finely detailed like a CT or MRI scan, but it can provide helpful information about whether abnormal areas seen on other tests (such as MRIs) are likely to be cancerous or not.

This test is also useful after treatment to help determine if an area that still looks abnormal on an MRI scan is remaining tumor or if it is more likely to be scar tissue. Any remaining tumor will show up on the PET scan, while scar tissue will not.

Chest x-ray

An x-ray may be done to look for tumors in the chest if a tumor is found in the brain, because in adults most tumors in the brain have actually started in another organ (most often the lung) and then spread to the brain. This test can be done in a doctor’s office, in an outpatient radiology center, or in a hospital.


For this test, a special dye is injected into blood vessels near the tumor, and the area is then viewed with x-rays. This helps doctors look at the blood supply of a tumor.

This test is not done much anymore, as it has largely been replaced by other tests that can look at blood vessels, such as computerized tomographic angiography (CTA) or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA).

In very selected cases an angiogram may be used as part of the treatment for certain brain tumors. It is done as a first step of a procedure called embolization, in which the radiologist injects tiny particles into the blood vessels feeding the tumor to block them and make it easier to remove the tumor.

Brain or spinal cord tumor biopsy

Imaging tests such as MRI and CT scans may show an abnormal area that is likely to be a brain or spinal cord tumor. But in most cases these scans can’t tell exactly what type of tumor it is. This can only be done by removing some of the tumor tissue, which is called a biopsy. A biopsy may be done as a procedure on its own, or it may be part of surgery to treat the tumor.

Once the tissue is removed, it is looked at under a microscope by a pathologist (a doctor specializing in diagnosis of diseases by lab tests). Sometimes it might need to be looked at by a neuropathologist, a pathologist who specializes in nervous system diseases. The pathologist determines if the tumor is benign or malignant (cancerous) and exactly what type of tumor it is.

Sometimes, a tumor may look so much like an astrocytoma on an MRI scan that a biopsy is not needed, especially if the tumor is in a part of the brain that would make it hard to biopsy (such as the brain stem). In rare cases a PET scan or MR spectroscopy may give enough information so that a biopsy is not needed.

There are 2 main types of biopsies for brain tumors.

Stereotactic (needle) biopsy

This type of biopsy may be used if, based on imaging tests, the risks of surgery to remove the tumor might be too high (such as with some tumors in vital areas, those deep within the brain, or other tumors that probably can’t be treated with surgery) but a sample is still needed to make a diagnosis.

The patient may be asleep (under general anesthesia) or awake during the biopsy. If the patient is awake, the neurosurgeon injects a local anesthetic into areas of skin above the skull to numb them. (The skull and brain do not feel pain.) A rigid frame may then be fixed onto the head. This helps make sure the surgeon is targeting the tumor precisely. An incision (cut) is made in the scalp and a small hole is drilled in the skull. An MRI or CT scan is often used along with the frame to help the neurosurgeon guide a hollow needle into the tumor to remove small pieces of tissue.

Another approach is to attach markers to the scalp, get an MRI or CT, and then use an image-guidance system to direct the needle into the tumor. This still requires making an incision and drilling a small hole into the skull.

The removed tissue is sent to a pathologist, who looks at it under a microscope to determine what type of tumor it is. This is very important in determining the prognosis (outlook) and the best course of treatment.

Surgical or open biopsy (craniotomy)

If the tumor can be treated with surgery based on the imaging tests, the neurosurgeon may not do a needle biopsy. Instead, he or she may do an operation called a craniotomy (described in the “Surgery for adult brain and spinal cord tumors” section) to remove all or most of the tumor. (Removing most of the tumor is known as debulking.)

Small samples of the tumor are looked at right away by the pathologist while the patient is still in the operating room, for a preliminary diagnosis. This can help guide treatment, including whether further surgery should be done at that time. A final diagnosis is made a few days later in most cases.

Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)

This test is used to look for cancer cells in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is the liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. For this test, you lay on your side on a bed or exam table with your knees up near your chest. The doctor first numbs an area in the lower part of the back near the spine. A small, hollow needle is then placed between the bones of the spine to withdraw some of the fluid.

This fluid is sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope for cancer cells. Other tests may be done on the fluid as well.

Lumbar punctures are usually very safe, but doctors have to make sure the test does not result in a large drop in pressure in the fluid, which could possibly cause serious problems. For this reason, imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans are done first.

Except for tumors in the pineal region, lumbar punctures usually aren’t done to diagnose brain tumors. But they may be done to help determine the extent of a tumor by looking for cancer cells in the CSF. They are often used if a tumor has already been diagnosed as a type that can commonly spread through the CSF, such as an ependymoma. Lumbar punctures are particularly important in people with suspected brain lymphomas because often the lymphoma cells spread into the spinal fluid.

Blood and urine tests

These lab tests rarely are part of the actual diagnosis of brain and spinal cord tumors, but they may be done to check how well the liver, kidneys, and some other organs are working. This is especially important before any planned surgery. If you are getting chemotherapy, blood tests will be done routinely to check blood counts and to see if the treatment is affecting other parts of the body.


How are brain and spinal cord tumors in adults staged?

The stage of a cancer is a measure of how far it has spread. A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to describe the extent of this spread. For most types of cancer, the stage is one of the most important factors in selecting treatment options and in determining the outlook (prognosis).

But tumors of the brain and spinal cord differ in some important ways from cancers in other parts of the body. One of the main reasons other cancers are dangerous is that they can spread throughout the body. Tumors starting in the brain or spinal cord can spread to other parts of the central nervous system, but they almost never spread to other organs. These tumors are dangerous because they can interfere with essential functions of the brain.

Because tumors in the brain or spinal cord almost never spread to other parts of the body, there is no formal staging system for them. Some of the important factors that help determine a person’s outlook include:

  • The person’s age
  • The person’s functional level (whether the tumor has started to interfere with normal brain functions and everyday activity)
  • The type of tumor (such as astrocytoma, ependymoma, etc.)
  • The grade of the tumor (how quickly the tumor is likely to grow, based on how the cells look under a microscope)
  • The size and location of the tumor
  • How much of the tumor can be removed by surgery (if it can be done)
  • Whether or not the tumor has spread through the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to other parts of the brain and/or spinal cord
  • Whether or not tumor cells have spread beyond the central nervous system


Survival rates for selected adult brain and spinal cord tumors

Survival rates are a way for doctors and patients to get a general idea of the outlook (prognosis) for people with a certain type of tumor. Some people want to know the statistics for people in their situation, while others may not find them helpful, or may even not want to know them. If you do not want to know the survival rates for adult brain and spinal cord tumors, stop reading here and skip to the next section.

The 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after being diagnosed. Of course, many of these people live much longer than 5 years. Five-year relative survival rates, such as the numbers below, assume that some people will die of other causes and compare the observed survival with that expected for people without the tumor. This is a more accurate way to describe the prognosis for patients with a particular type of tumor.

To get 5-year survival rates, doctors have to look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. Although the numbers below are among the most current available, improvements in treatment since then may result in a more favorable outlook for people now being diagnosed with brain and spinal cord tumors.

Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they cannot predict what will happen in any particular person’s case. Knowing the type of tumor is important in estimating a person’s outlook. But many other factors may also affect the outlook, such as the location of the tumor and whether it can be removed with surgery, as well as a person’s age and overall health. Even when taking these other factors into account, survival rates are at best rough estimates. Your doctor can tell you if the numbers below may apply, as he or she is familiar with the aspects of your particular situation.

The numbers below come from the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (CBTRUS) and are based on people who were treated between 1995 and 2008. As can be seen below, survival rates for brain and spinal cord tumors can vary widely with the age of the patient, with younger people generally having better outlooks than older people. The survival rates for those 65 or older are generally lower than the rates for the ages listed below.

These numbers are for some of the more common types of malignant brain and spinal cord tumors. Numbers are not readily available for all types of tumors, often because they are rare or are hard to classify.

Type of Tumor 5-Year Relative Survival Rate  
20-44 45-54 55-64
  • Low-grade (diffuse) astrocytoma
  • 60%
  • 42%
  • NA*
  • Anaplastic astrocytoma
  • 49%
  • 31%
  • 9%
  • Glioblastoma
  • 17%
  • 6%
  • 4%
  • Oligodendroglioma
  • 85%
  • 78%
  • 64%
  • Anaplastic oligodendroglioma
  • 65%
  • 52%
  • 36%
  • Ependymoma/anaplastic ependymoma
  • 91%
  • 84%
  • 84%

*NA = not available


How are brain and spinal cord tumors in adults treated?

This information represents the views of the doctors and nurses serving on the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Database Editorial Board. These views are based on their interpretation of studies published in medical journals, as well as their own professional experience.

The treatment information in this document is not official policy of the Society and is not intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your cancer care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together with your doctor.

Your doctor may have reasons for suggesting a treatment plan different from these general treatment options. Don’t hesitate to ask him or her questions about your treatment options.

General comments about treatment

Brain and spinal cord tumors can often be hard to treat and may require care from a team of several different doctors. This team is often led by a neurosurgeon, a doctor who uses surgery to treat brain and nervous system tumors. Other doctors on the team may include:

  • Neurologist: a doctor who diagnoses and treats brain and nervous system diseases
  • Radiation oncologist: a doctor who uses radiation to treat cancer
  • Medical oncologist: a doctor who uses chemotherapy and other medicines to treat cancers
  • Endocrinologist: a doctor who treats diseases in glands that secrete hormones

Many other specialists may be involved in your care as well, including nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and other health professionals.

Several types of treatment may be used to treat brain and spinal cord tumors, including:

Treatment is based on the type of tumor and other factors, and in many cases a combination of treatments is used. Doctors plan each person’s treatment individually to give them the best chance of treating the cancer effectively while limiting the possible long-term side effects.

The next few sections describe the various types of treatments used for brain and spinal cord tumors. This is followed by a description of the most common approaches used based on the type of tumor.


Surgery for adult brain and spinal cord tumors

For brain and spinal cord tumors, surgery may be done for different reasons:

  • To get a biopsy sample to determine the type of tumor
  • To remove as much of the tumor as possible
  • To help prevent or treat possible complications from the tumor

Before surgery, be sure you understand the goal of the surgery, as well as its possible benefits and risks.

Surgery to remove the tumor

In most cases, the first step in brain tumor treatment is for the neurosurgeon to remove as much of the tumor as is safe without affecting normal brain function.

Surgery alone or combined with radiation therapy may cure many tumors, including some low-grade astrocytomas, ependymomas, craniopharyngiomas, gangliogliomas, and meningiomas.

Tumors that tend to spread widely into nearby brain tissue such as anaplastic astrocytomas or glioblastomas cannot be cured by surgery. But surgery can reduce the amount of tumor that needs to be treated by radiation or chemotherapy, which might help these treatments work better. This could help prolong the person’s life even if all of the tumor can’t be removed.

Surgery may also help relieve some of the symptoms caused by brain tumors, particularly those caused by a buildup of pressure within the skull. These can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, and blurred vision. Surgery may also be used to help control seizures.

Surgery may not be a good option in some cases, such as if the tumor is deep within the brain, if it is in a part of the brain that can’t be removed, such as the brain stem, or if a person is unable to tolerate a major operation for other health reasons.

Surgery is not very effective against some types of brain tumors, such as lymphomas, although it may be used to get a biopsy for diagnosis.

Craniotomy: During a craniotomy, the surgeon makes an opening in the skull to reach the tumor. This is the most common approach for surgery to treat brain tumors. The person may either be under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep) or may be awake for at least part of the procedure (with the surgical area numbed) if brain function needs to be assessed during the operation.

Part of the head may need to be shaved before surgery. The neurosurgeon first makes an incision in the scalp, and the skin is folded back. A special type of drill is used to remove the piece of the skull over the tumor.

The opening is typically large enough for the surgeon to insert several instruments and view the parts of the brain needed to operate safely. The surgeon may need to make an incision into the brain itself to reach the tumor. The surgeon may use MRI, CT, or ultrasound images taken before the surgery to help locate the tumor and its edges.

The surgeon can remove the tumor in several ways depending on how hard or soft it is, and whether it has many or just a few blood vessels. One way is to cut it out with a scalpel or special scissors. Some tumors are soft and can be removed with simple suction devices. In other cases, a probe attached to an ultrasonic generator may be placed into the tumor to break it up and liquefy it. A small vacuum device is then used to suck it out.

Many devices can help the surgeon see the tumor and surrounding brain tissue. The surgeon often operates while looking at the brain through a special microscope. As mentioned above, MRI, CT, or ultrasound can be done before surgery to map the area of tumors buried deep in the brain. In some cases, the surgeon may use intraoperative imaging, in which MRI (or other) images are taken at different times during the operation to show the location of any remaining tumor. This may allow some brain tumors to be resected more safely and extensively.

As much of the tumor is removed as possible without affecting important brain tissue or leaving the patient disabled in any way. The surgeon can electrically stimulate parts of the brain in and around the tumor and monitor the response. This will show if these areas control an important function. Using this technique, known as intraoperative cortical stimulation, surgeons can lower the risk of removing vital parts of the brain. A particular function of the brain can also be located before surgery with a technique called functional MRI. This information can be used to identify and preserve that region during the operation.

In most cases the removed piece of bone is put back in place and fastened to the skull with metal screws and plates, wires, or special stitches. You may have a drain coming out of the incision that allows excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to leave the skull. Other drains may be in place to allow blood that builds up after surgery to drain from under the scalp. The drains are usually removed after a few days. Recovery time in the hospital is usually 4 to 6 days, although this could vary according to the size and location of the tumor and the patient’s general health. Healing around the surgery site usually takes several weeks.

Surgery to place a shunt or ventricular access catheter

If a tumor blocks the flow of the CSF, it can increase pressure inside the skull. This can cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, and drowsiness, and may even be life-threatening.

To drain excess CSF and lower the pressure, the neurosurgeon may put in a silicone tube called a shunt (sometimes referred to as a ventriculoperitoneal or VP shunt). One end of the shunt is placed in a ventricle of the brain (an area filled with CSF) and the other end is placed in the abdomen or, less often, the heart or other areas. The tube runs under the skin of the neck and chest. The flow of CSF is controlled by a valve placed along the tubing.

Shunts may be temporary or permanent. They may be placed before or after the surgery to remove the tumor. Shunt placement is normally a straightforward procedure that takes about an hour. As with any operation, complications may develop, such as bleeding or infection. Sometimes shunts get clogged and need to be replaced. The hospital stay after shunt procedures is typically 1 to 3 days, depending on the reason it is placed and the patient’s general health.

Surgery may also be used to insert a ventricular access catheter, such as an Ommaya reservoir, to help deliver chemotherapy directly into the CSF. A small incision is made in the scalp, and a small hole is drilled in the skull. A flexible tube is then threaded through the hole until the open end of the tube is in a ventricle, where it reaches the CSF. The other end, which has a dome-shaped reservoir, stays just under the scalp. After the operation, doctors and nurses can use a thin needle to give chemotherapy drugs through the reservoir or to remove CSF from the ventricle for testing.

Possible risks and side effects of surgery

Surgery on the brain or spinal cord is a serious operation, and surgeons are very careful to try to limit any problems either during or after surgery. Complications during or after surgery such as bleeding, infections, or reactions to anesthesia are rare, but they can happen.

A major concern after surgery is swelling in the brain. Drugs called corticosteroids are typically given for several days after surgery to help lessen this risk.

One of the biggest concerns when removing brain tumors is the possible loss of brain function afterward, which is why doctors are very careful to remove only as much tissue as is safely possible.

For more information on surgery as a treatment for cancer, see our document, Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Radiation therapy for adult brain and spinal cord tumors

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or small particles to kill cancer cells. This type of treatment is given by a doctor called a radiation oncologist. Radiation therapy may be used in different situations:

  • After surgery to try to kill any remaining tumor cells
  • As the main treatment if surgery is not a good option and medicines are not effective
  • To help prevent or relieve symptoms

Types of radiation therapy

In most cases, the radiation is focused precisely on the tumor from a source outside the body. This is called external beam radiation therapy (EBRT). This type of radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the dose of radiation is much higher.

Before your treatments start, the radiation team will measure carefully to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. In most cases, the total dose of radiation is divided into daily fractions (usually given Monday through Friday) over several weeks. At each session, you lie on a special table while a machine delivers the radiation from precise angles. The treatment is not painful. Each session lasts about 15 to 30 minutes. Much of that time is spent making sure the radiation is aimed correctly. The actual treatment time each day is much shorter.

High doses of radiation therapy can damage normal brain tissue, so doctors try to deliver high doses of radiation to the tumor with the lowest possible dose to normal surrounding brain areas. Several techniques can help doctors focus the radiation more precisely:

Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): 3D-CRT uses the results of imaging tests such as MRI and special computers to map the location of the tumor precisely. Several radiation beams are then shaped and aimed at the tumor from different directions. Each beam alone is fairly weak, which makes it less likely to damage normal tissues, but the beams converge at the tumor to give a higher dose of radiation there.

Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is an advanced form of 3D therapy. It uses a computer-driven machine that actually moves around the patient as it delivers radiation. Along with shaping the beams and aiming them at the tumor from several angles, the intensity (strength) of the beams can be adjusted to limit the dose reaching the most sensitive normal tissues. This may let the doctor deliver a higher dose to the tumor. Many major hospitals and cancer centers now use IMRT.

Conformal proton beam radiation therapy: Proton beam therapy is related to 3D-CRT and uses a similar approach. But instead of using x-rays, it focuses proton beams on the tumor. Protons are positive parts of atoms. Unlike x-rays, which release energy both before and after they hit their target, protons cause little damage to tissues they pass through and then release their energy after traveling a certain distance. Doctors can use this property to deliver more radiation to the tumor and do less damage to nearby normal tissues.

This approach may be more helpful for brain tumors that have distinct edges (such as meningiomas), but it is not clear if this approach will be useful with tumors that are infiltrative or mixed with normal brain tissue (such as astrocytomas or glioblastomas). There are only a handful of proton beam centers in the United States at this time.

Stereotactic radiosurgery/stereotactic radiotherapy: This type of treatment delivers a large, precise radiation dose to the tumor area in a single session (radiosurgery) or in a few sessions (radiotherapy). (There is no actual surgery involved in this treatment.) It may be used for some tumors in parts of the brain or spinal cord that can’t be treated with surgery or when a patient’s health is too poor for surgery.

First, a head frame is attached to the skull to help precisely aim the radiation beams. Once the exact location of the tumor is known from CT or MRI scans, radiation is focused at the tumor from many different angles. This can be done in 2 ways.

In one approach, radiation beams are focused at the tumor from hundreds of different angles for a short period of time. An example of such a machine is the Gamma Knife.

Another approach uses a movable linear accelerator (a machine that creates radiation) that is controlled by a computer. Instead of delivering many beams at once, this machine moves around the head to deliver radiation to the tumor from many different angles. Several machines with names such as X-Knife, CyberKnife, and Clinac, deliver stereotactic radiosurgery in this way.

Stereotactic radiosurgery typically delivers the whole radiation dose in a single session, though it may be repeated if needed. Sometimes doctors give the radiation in several treatments to deliver the same or a slightly higher dose. This is called fractionated radiosurgery or stereotactic radiotherapy.

Brachytherapy (internal radiotherapy): Unlike the external radiation approaches above, brachytherapy involves inserting radioactive material directly into or near the tumor. The radiation it gives off travels a very short distance, so it affects only the tumor. This technique is most often used with external radiation. It provides a high dose of radiation at the tumor site, while the external radiation treats nearby areas with a lower dose.

Whole brain and spinal cord radiation therapy (craniospinal radiation): If tests like an MRI scan or lumbar puncture find the tumor has spread along the covering of the spinal cord (meninges) or into the surrounding cerebrospinal fluid, then radiation may be given to the whole brain and spinal cord. Some tumors such as ependymomas and medulloblastomas are more likely to spread this way and often require craniospinal radiation.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

Radiation is more harmful to tumor cells than it is to normal cells. Still, normal brain tissue is also damaged by radiation.

Some people become irritable and fatigued during the course of radiation therapy. Nausea, vomiting, and headaches are also possible but are uncommon. Spinal radiation can cause nausea and vomiting more often than brain radiation. Sometimes dexamethasone (Decadron), a corticosteroid drug, can help relieve these symptoms.

A person may lose some brain function if large areas of the brain get radiation. Problems can include memory loss, personality changes, and trouble concentrating. There may also be other symptoms depending on the area of brain treated and how much radiation was given. These risks must be balanced against the risks of not using radiation and having less control of the tumor.

Rarely after radiation therapy, a large mass of dead (necrotic) tissue forms at the site of the tumor. This occurs months to years after radiation is given and is called radiation necrosis. This can often be controlled with corticosteroid drugs, but surgery may be needed to remove the necrotic tissue in some instances.

Radiation can damage genes in normal cells. As a result, there is a small risk of developing a second cancer in an area that got radiation — for example, a meningioma of the coverings of the brain, another brain tumor, or less likely a bone cancer in the skull. If this does occur, it is usually many years after the radiation is given. This small risk should not prevent those who need radiation from getting treatment.

For more information on radiation therapy, see our document, Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Targeted therapy for adult brain and spinal cord tumors

As researchers have learned more about the inner workings of cells that cause cancer or help cancer cells grow, they have developed newer drugs that specifically target these changes. These targeted drugs work differently from standard chemotherapy drugs. They often have different (and less severe) side effects. These drugs do not yet play a large role in treating brain or spinal cord tumors, but some of them may be helpful for certain types of tumors.

Bevacizumab (Avastin)

Bevacizumab is a man-made version of an immune system protein called a monoclonal antibody. This antibody targets vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein that helps tumors form new blood vessels to get nutrients (a process known as angiogenesis). Tumors need new blood vessels to grow.

Bevacizumab is given by intravenous (IV) infusion, usually once every 2 weeks. Some early studies have shown it might help shrink certain brain tumors, especially glioblastomas, but it is not yet clear if it can help people live longer.

More common side effects include high blood pressure, tiredness, bleeding, low white blood cell counts, headaches, mouth sores, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. Rare but possibly serious side effects include blood clots, internal bleeding, heart problems, holes (perforations) in the intestines, and slow wound healing.

Everolimus (Afinitor)

This drug works by blocking a cell protein known as mTOR, which normally promotes cell growth and division. For subependymal giant cell astrocytomas that can’t be removed completely by surgery, it may shrink the tumor or slow its growth for some time, although it’s not clear if it can help people with these tumors live longer.

Everolimus is taken as a pill once a day. Common side effects of this drug include mouth sores, increased risk of infections, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, skin rash, feeling tired or weak, fluid buildup (usually in the legs), and increases in blood sugar and cholesterol levels. A less common but serious side effect is damage to the lungs, which can cause shortness of breath or other problems.

Other targeted therapies are now being developed and studied in clinical trials.


Other drug treatments for adult brain and spinal cord tumors

Some drugs commonly used in people with brain tumors do not treat the tumors directly, but they may help lessen symptoms from the tumor or its treatment.


Corticosteroid drugs such as dexamethasone (Decadron) are often given to reduce swelling around brain tumors. This may help relieve headaches and other symptoms.

Anti-seizure drugs (anti-epileptics)

Drugs may also be prescribed to lower the chance of seizures, which may happen in people with brain tumors. Different anti-seizure drugs may be used depending on a patient’s circumstances. Because many of these drugs can affect how other drugs such as chemotherapy work in the body, they are not usually given unless the tumor has caused seizures.


If the pituitary gland is damaged by the tumor itself or by tumor treatments (such as surgery or radiation therapy), you may need to take pituitary hormones or other hormones to replace those missing.


Clinical trials for adult brain and spinal cord tumors

You may have had to make a lot of decisions since you’ve been told you have a brain or spinal cord tumor. One of the most important decisions you will make is choosing which treatment is best for you. You may have heard about clinical trials being done for your type of tumor. Or maybe someone on your health care team has mentioned a clinical trial to you.

Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done with patients who volunteer for them. They are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures.

If you would like to take part in a clinical trial, you should start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service for a list of clinical trials that meet your medical needs. You can reach this service at 1-800-303-5691 or on our Web site at You can also get a list of current clinical trials by calling the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) or by visiting the NCI clinical trials Web site at

There are requirements you must meet to take part in any clinical trial. If you do qualify for a clinical trial, it is up to you whether or not to enter (enroll in) it.

Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art treatment. Sometimes they may be the only way to get access to some newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat tumors. Still, they are not right for everyone.

You can get a lot more information on clinical trials in our document, Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know. You can read it on our Web site or call our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345) and have it sent to you.


Complementary and alternative therapies for adult brain and spinal cord tumors

When you have a tumor you are likely to hear about ways to treat your tumor or relieve symptoms that your doctor hasn’t mentioned. Everyone from friends and family to Internet groups and Web sites might offer ideas for what might help you. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.

What exactly are complementary and alternative therapies?

Not everyone uses these terms the same way, and they are used to refer to many different methods, so it can be confusing. We use complementary to refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment.

Complementary methods: Most complementary treatment methods are not offered as cures. Mainly, they are used to help you feel better. Some methods that are used along with regular treatment are meditation to reduce stress, acupuncture to help relieve pain, or peppermint tea to relieve nausea. Some complementary methods are known to help, while others have not been tested. Some have been proven not to be helpful, and a few have even been found harmful.

Alternative treatments: Alternative treatments may be offered as cures. These treatments have not been proven safe and effective in clinical trials. Some of these methods may pose danger, or have life-threatening side effects. But the biggest danger in most cases is that you may lose the chance to be helped by standard medical treatment. Delays or interruptions in your medical treatments may give the tumor more time to grow and make it less likely that treatment will help.

Finding out more

It is easy to see why people with tumors think about alternative methods. You want to do all you can to fight the tumor, and the idea of a treatment with few or no side effects sounds great. Sometimes medical treatments like chemotherapy can be hard to take, or they may no longer be working. But the truth is that most of these alternative methods have not been tested and proven to work in treating tumors.

As you consider your options, here are 3 important steps you can take:

  • Look for “red flags” that suggest fraud. Does the method promise to cure all or most kinds of cancer? Are you told not to have regular medical treatments? Is the treatment a “secret” that requires you to visit certain providers or travel to another country?
  • Talk to your doctor or nurse about any method you are thinking about using.
  • Contact us at 1-800-227-2345 to learn more about complementary and alternative methods in general and to find out about the specific methods you are looking at.

The choice is yours

Decisions about how to treat or manage your tumor are always yours to make. If you want to use a non-standard treatment, learn all you can about the method and talk to your doctor about it. With good information and the support of your health care team, you may be able to safely use the methods that can help you while avoiding those that could be harmful.


Treating specific types of adult brain and spinal cord tumors

The treatment options for brain and spinal cord tumors depend on several factors, including the type and location of the tumor and how far it has grown or spread.

Non-infiltrating astrocytomas

These tumors include juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas, which most commonly occur in the cerebellum in young people, and the subependymal giant cell astrocytomas, which are almost always seen in people with tuberous sclerosis. Many doctors consider these benign tumors because they tend to grow very slowly and rarely grow into (infiltrate) nearby tissues.

In most cases, these astrocytomas can be cured by surgery alone. But older patients are less likely to be cured. Radiation therapy may be given after surgery, particularly if the tumor is not completely removed, although many doctors will wait until there are signs the tumor has grown back before considering it. Even then, repeating surgery may be the first option.

The outlook is not as good if the astrocytoma occurs in a place where it cannot be removed by surgery, such as in the hypothalamus or brain stem. In these cases, radiation therapy is usually the best option.

For subependymal giant cell astrocytomas that can’t be removed completely by surgery, treatment with the drug everolimus (Afinitor) may shrink the tumor or slow its growth for some time, although it’s not clear if it can help people live longer.

Low-grade astrocytomas
(Infiltrating or diffuse astrocytomas)

The initial treatment for these tumors is surgery if it can be done, or biopsy to confirm the diagnosis if surgical removal is not feasible. These tumors are hard to cure by surgery because they often grow into (infiltrate) nearby normal brain tissue. Usually the surgeon will try to remove as much of the tumor as safely possible. If the surgeon can remove it all, the patient may be cured.

Radiation therapy may be given after surgery, especially if a lot of tumor remains. Younger adults may not be given radiation unless the tumor shows signs of growing again. (In some cases, a second surgery may be tried before giving radiation.) In people who are over age 40 or whose tumors are at higher risk of coming back for other reasons, radiation may be given after surgery. Chemotherapy may also be given after surgery in some cases. Some doctors may use genetic tests of the tumor to help determine if radiation or chemotherapy should be given.

Radiation or chemotherapy may also be used as the main treatment if surgery is not a good option for some reason.

Intermediate- and high-grade astrocytomas
(Anaplastic astrocytomas, glioblastomas)

Surgery is often the first treatment when it can be done, but these tumors are almost never cured with surgery. As much of the tumor is removed as is safely possible. Chemotherapy wafers may be placed in or near any remaining tumor at this time. Radiation therapy is then given in most cases. This may be given with or followed by chemotherapy if the person’s health allows. For some people who are in poor health or whose tumors have certain gene changes, chemo may be used instead of radiation therapy.

For tumors that cannot be treated with surgery, radiation therapy — with or without chemo — is usually the best option.

Temozolomide is the chemotherapy drug most often used to treat these tumors. It is sometimes given along with radiation therapy. It is then continued after the radiation is completed. Temozolomide is the drug used first by most doctors because it crosses the blood-brain barrier and it’s convenient (because it can be taken as a pill).

Cisplatin, carmustine (BCNU), and lomustine (CCNU) are other commonly used drugs. Combinations of drugs may also be used, such as the PCV regimen (procarbazine, CCNU, and vincristine). All of these treatments may shrink or slow tumor growth for some time, but they are not expected to produce a cure.

If standard chemotherapy drugs are no longer effective, the targeted drug bevacizumab (Avastin) may be helpful for some people, either alone or with chemo.

In general, these tumors are very hard to treat effectively for long periods of time. Because these tumors are so hard to cure with current treatments, clinical trials of promising new treatments may be a good option.

Oligodendrogliomas and anaplastic oligodendrogliomas

If possible, surgery is the first option for oligodendrogliomas. Surgery usually doesn’t cure them, but it can relieve symptoms and prolong survival. Many oligodendrogliomas grow slowly, especially in younger people, and may not need further treatment right away. Surgery may be repeated if the tumor grows back in the same spot. Radiation therapy and/or chemo (most often with temozolomide or the PCV regimen) may also be options after surgery.

Oligodendrogliomas may respond to chemotherapy better than other brain tumors if the tumor cells have certain chromosome changes. You can ask your doctor about testing for these changes.

Radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be helpful for tumors that can’t be treated with surgery.

Anaplastic oligodendrogliomas tend to grow and spread more quickly. They are treated the same way as anaplastic astrocytomas (see above).

Ependymomas and anaplastic ependymomas

These tumors usually do not grow into nearby normal brain tissue. Sometimes, patients may be cured by surgery alone if the entire tumor can be removed, but often this is not possible. If only part of the tumor is removed with surgery (or if it is an anaplastic ependymoma), radiation therapy is given after surgery. If surgery cannot be done, radiation therapy is the main treatment.

Patients typically get an MRI of the brain and spine (and possibly a lumbar puncture) a few weeks after surgery if it is done. If either of these tests shows that the cancer may have spread through the cerebrospinal fluid, radiation therapy is given to the entire brain and spinal cord.

It is not clear how helpful chemotherapy is for these tumors — this is still being studied. Chemotherapy is usually not given unless the tumor can no longer be treated with surgery or radiation.


Most meningiomas tend to grow slowly, so small tumors that aren’t causing symptoms can often be watched rather than treated, particularly in the elderly.

If treatment is needed, these tumors can usually be cured if they are completely removed with surgery. Radiation therapy may be used along with, or instead of, surgery for tumors that can’t be completely removed. For meningiomas that are atypical (grade II) or anaplastic (grade III), which tend to recur after treatment, radiation therapy is typically given after surgery even if all of the tumor has been removed.

For meningiomas that recur after initial treatment, further surgery (if possible) or radiation therapy may be used. If surgery and radiation aren’t options, drug treatments (chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or hormone-like drugs) may be used, but it’s not clear how much benefit they may offer.

Schwannomas (including acoustic neuromas)

These slow-growing tumors are usually benign and are cured by surgery. In some centers, small acoustic neuromas are treated by stereotactic radiosurgery (see the section “Radiation therapy for adult brain and spinal cord tumors”). For large schwannomas where complete removal is likely to cause problems, tumors may be operated on first to decrease their size and then the remainder is treated with radiosurgery. For the rare malignant schwannoma, radiation therapy is often given after surgery.

Spinal cord tumors

These tumors are treated like those in the brain. Astrocytomas of the spinal cord usually cannot be completely removed. They may be treated with surgery to obtain a diagnosis and remove as much tumor as possible, and then by radiation therapy, or with radiation therapy alone. Meningiomas of the spinal canal are often cured by surgical removal, as are some ependymomas. If surgery doesn’t completely remove an ependymoma, radiation therapy is often given.


Treatment of central nervous system lymphomas generally consists of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Treatment is discussed in more detail in our document, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Brain tumors that occur more often in children

Some brain tumors occur more often in children but do occur occasionally in adults. These include brain stem gliomas, germ cell tumors, craniopharyngiomas, choroid plexus tumors, medulloblastomas, primitive neuroectodermal tumors (PNETs), and some others. Treatment of these tumors is described in our document, Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children.


More treatment information for adult brain and spinal cord tumors

For more details on treatment options – including some that may not be addressed in this document – the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) are good sources of information.

The NCCN, made up of experts from many of the nation’s leading cancer centers, develops cancer treatment guidelines for doctors to use when treating patients. They are available on the NCCN Web site (

The NCI provides treatment information via telephone (1-800-4-CANCER) and its Web site ( Information for patients as well as more detailed information intended for use by cancer care professionals is also available on


What should you ask your doctor about adult brain and spinal cord tumors?

It is important for you to have honest, open discussions with your cancer care team. Feel free to ask any question, no matter how small it might seem. Here are some questions you might want to ask. Be sure to add your own questions as you think of them. Nurses, social workers, and other members of the treatment team may also be able to answer many of your questions.

  • What kind of tumor do I have?
  • Is the tumor benign or malignant? What does this mean?
  • Where in the brain or spinal cord is the tumor and how far has it spread?
  • Do I need to have other tests done before we can decide on treatment?
  • Are you experienced in treating this type of tumor?
  • What are my treatment choices? What do you recommend? Why?
  • What is the goal of treatment (cure, prolonging life, relieving symptoms, etc.)?
  • Will treatment relieve any of the symptoms I now have?
  • What are the possible risks or side effects of treatment? What disabilities might I develop?
  • What should I do to be ready for treatment?
  • How long will treatment take? What will it involve? Where will it be given?
  • What is my expected prognosis (outlook)?
  • What would we do if the treatment doesn’t work or if the cancer recurs?
  • What type of follow-up will I need after treatment?

Along with these sample questions, be sure to write down any others you want to ask. For instance, you might want information about recovery times so that you can plan your work or activity schedule. Or you might want to ask about second opinions, as well as about qualifying for clinical trials.


What happens after treatment for adult brain and spinal cord tumors?

For some people with brain or spinal cord tumors, treatment may remove or destroy the tumor. Completing treatment can be both stressful and exciting. You may be relieved to finish treatment, but find it hard not to worry about the tumor growing or coming back. (When a tumor comes back after treatment, it is called recurrence.) This is a very common concern in people who have had a brain or spinal cord tumor.

It may take a while before your fears lessen. But it may help to know that many cancer survivors have learned to live with this uncertainty and are leading full lives. Our document, Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence, gives more detailed information on this.

For other people, the tumor may never go away completely. Some people may continue to be treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or other treatments to try to help keep the tumor in check. Learning to live with a tumor that does not go away can be difficult and very stressful. It has its own type of uncertainty.

Follow-up care

If you have completed treatment, your doctors will still want to watch you closely. It is very important to keep all follow-up appointments. During these visits, your doctors will ask about symptoms, examine you, and may order lab tests or imaging tests such as MRI scans to watch for a recurrence of the tumor.

In some cases, even with slow-growing tumors, some of the tumor may still be left behind after treatment. Even with tumors that are treated successfully, it is important to remember that some might come back, sometimes many years later.

Whether the tumor was completely removed or not, your health care team will want to follow up closely with you, especially in the first few months and years after treatment to make sure there is no progression or recurrence. Depending on the type and location of the tumor and the extent of the treatment, the team will decide which tests should be done and how often.

During this time, it is important to report any new symptoms to your doctor right away, so the cause can be determined and treated, if needed. Your doctor can give you an idea of what to look for. If you need further treatment at some point, the doctor will go over your options with you.

Should your tumor come back, the American Cancer Society document, When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence can give you information on how to manage and cope with this phase of your treatment. You can get this document by calling 1-800-227-2345 or you can read it on


Recovering from the effects of the brain or spinal cord tumor and its treatment

The possible effects of the tumor and its treatment on your physical and mental function can range from very mild to fairly severe.

Once you have recovered from treatment, doctors will try to determine if damage was done to the brain or other areas. Careful physical exams and imaging tests (CT or MRI scans) might be done after treatment to determine the extent and location of any changes in the brain.

Several types of doctors and other health professionals may be involved in assessing any damage and helping you recover.

A neurologist (a doctor who specializes in medical treatment of the nervous system) may assess your physical coordination, muscle strength, and other aspects of nervous system function.

If you have muscle weakness or paralysis, you will be seen by physical and/or occupational therapists and perhaps a physiatrist (a doctor who specializes in rehabilitation) while in the hospital and/or as an outpatient for physical therapy.

If the speech center of your brain is affected, a speech therapist will help you improve communication skills.

If needed, an ophthalmologist (a doctor who specializes in eye problems) will check your vision, and an audiologist may check your hearing.

After surgery, you may also see a psychiatrist or psychologist to determine the extent of any damage caused by the tumor or surgery. If you get radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy, this process may be repeated again after treatment is finished.

If you were treated with surgery or radiation therapy for a tumor near the base of the brain, pituitary hormone production may be affected. You might be seen by an endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in hormone disorders). If hormone levels are affected, hormone treatments to restore normal levels may be needed for the rest of your life.


Keeping copies of your medical records and health insurance

At some point after your diagnosis and treatment, you may see a new doctor who does not know your medical history. It is important that you be able to give your new doctor the details of your diagnosis and treatment. Make sure you have this information handy:

  • A copy of the pathology report(s) from any biopsies or surgeries
  • Copies of imaging tests (CT or MRI scans, etc.), which can usually be stored on a CD, DVD, etc.
  • If you had surgery, a copy of the operative report(s)
  • If you stayed in the hospital, copies of the discharge summaries that doctors prepare when patients are sent home
  • If you had chemotherapy, a list of the drugs, drug doses, and when they were given
  • If you had radiation therapy, a summary of the type and dose of radiation and when and where it was given

It is also very important to keep your health insurance. Tests and doctor visits cost a lot, and even though no one wants to think of a tumor coming back, this could happen.


Lifestyle changes after having an adult brain or spinal cord tumor

You can’t change the fact that you have had a brain or spinal cord tumor. What you can change is how you live the rest of your life – making choices to help you stay healthy and feel as well as you can. This can be a time to look at your life in new ways. Maybe you are thinking about how to improve your health over the long term. Some people even start during treatment.

Making healthier choices

For many people, a diagnosis of a brain or spinal cord tumor helps them focus on their health in ways they may not have thought much about in the past. Are there things you could do that might make you healthier? Maybe you could try to eat better or get more exercise. Maybe you could cut down on the alcohol, or give up tobacco. Even things like keeping your stress level under control may help. Now is a good time to think about making changes that can have positive effects for the rest of your life. You will feel better and you will also be healthier.

You can start by working on those things that worry you most. Get help with those that are harder for you. For instance, if you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society for information and support.

Eating better

Eating right can be hard for anyone, but it can get even tougher during and after treatment. Treatment may change your sense of taste. Nausea can be a problem. You may not feel like eating and lose weight when you don’t want to. Or you may have gained weight that you can’t seem to lose. All of these things can be very frustrating.

If treatment caused weight changes or eating or taste problems, do the best you can and keep in mind that these problems usually get better over time. You might find it helps to eat small portions every 2 to 3 hours until you feel better. You may also want to ask your health care team about seeing a dietitian, an expert in nutrition who can give you ideas on how to deal with these treatment side effects.

One of the best things you can do after treatment is put healthy eating habits into place. You may be surprised at the long-term benefits of some simple changes, like increasing the variety of healthy foods you eat. Getting to and staying at a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, and limiting your alcohol intake may lower your risk for a number of types of cancer, as well as having many other health benefits.

Rest, fatigue, and exercise

Extreme tiredness, called fatigue, is very common during and after treatment. This is not a normal tiredness, but a bone-weary exhaustion that doesn’t get better with rest. For some people, fatigue lasts a long time after treatment, and can make it hard for them to exercise and do other things they want to do. But exercise can help reduce fatigue. Studies have shown that patients who follow an exercise program tailored to their personal needs feel better physically and emotionally and can cope better, too.

If you were sick and not very active during treatment, it is normal for your fitness, endurance, and muscle strength to decline. Any plan for physical activity should fit your own situation. An older person who has never exercised will not be able to take on the same amount of exercise as a 20-year-old who plays tennis twice a week. If you haven’t exercised in a few years, you will have to start slowly – maybe just by taking short walks.

Talk with your health care team before starting anything. Get their opinion about your exercise plans. Then, try to find an exercise buddy so you’re not doing it alone. Having family or friends involved when starting a new exercise program can give you that extra boost of support to keep you going when the push just isn’t there.

If you are very tired, you will need to balance activity with rest. It is OK to rest when you need to. Sometimes it’s really hard for people to allow themselves to rest when they are used to working all day or taking care of a household, but this is not the time to push yourself too hard. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. (For more information on dealing with fatigue, please see Fatigue in People With Cancer and Anemia in People With Cancer.)

Keep in mind exercise can improve your physical and emotional health.

  • It improves your cardiovascular (heart and circulation) fitness.
  • Along with a good diet, it will help you get to and stay at a healthy weight.
  • It makes your muscles stronger.
  • It reduces fatigue and helps you have more energy.
  • It can help lower anxiety and depression.
  • It can make you feel happier.
  • It helps you feel better about yourself.

And long term, we know that getting regular physical activity plays a role in helping lower the risk of some cancers, as well as having other health benefits.

Can I lower my risk of the tumor progressing or coming back?

Most people want to know if there are specific lifestyle changes they can make to reduce their risk of the tumor progressing or coming back. Unfortunately, for most tumors there is little solid evidence to guide people. This doesn’t mean that nothing will help – it’s just that for the most part this is an area that hasn’t been well studied. Most studies have looked at lifestyle changes as ways of preventing cancer in the first place, not slowing it down or preventing it from coming back.

At this time, not enough is known about brain and spinal cord tumors to say for sure if there are things you can do that will be helpful. Adopting healthy behaviors such as eating well and maintaining a healthy weight may help, but no one knows for sure. However, we do know that these types of changes can have positive effects on your health that can extend beyond your risk of cancer.


How does having an adult brain or spinal cord tumor affect your emotional health?

During and after treatment, you may find yourself overcome with many different emotions. This happens to a lot of people.

You may find yourself thinking about death and dying. Or maybe you’re more aware of the effect the tumor has on your family, friends, and career. You may take a new look at your relationships with those around you. Unexpected issues may also cause concern. For instance, you may see your health care team less often after treatment and have more time on your hands. These changes can make some people anxious.

Almost everyone who is going through or has been through tumor treatment can benefit from getting some type of support. You need people you can turn to for strength and comfort. Support can come in many forms: family, friends, cancer support groups, church or spiritual groups, online support communities, or one-on-one counselors. What’s best for you depends on your situation and personality. Some people feel safe in peer-support groups or education groups. Others would rather talk in an informal setting, such as church. Others may feel more at ease talking one-on-one with a trusted friend or counselor. Whatever your source of strength or comfort, make sure you have a place to go with your concerns.

The journey can feel very lonely. It is not necessary or good for you to try to deal with everything on your own. And your friends and family may feel shut out if you do not include them. Let them in, and let in anyone else who you feel may help. If you aren’t sure who can help, call your American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 and we can put you in touch with a group or resource that may work for you.


What happens if treatment for an adult brain or spinal cord tumor is no longer working?

If a tumor keeps growing or comes back after one kind of treatment, it may be possible to try another treatment plan that might still cure it, or at least keep it under control enough to help you live longer and feel better. But when a person has tried many different treatments and the tumor is still growing, it tends to become resistant to all treatment. If this happens, it’s important to weigh the possible limited benefits of a new treatment against the possible downsides, including treatment side effects. Everyone has their own way of looking at this.

This is likely to be the hardest part of your battle with a tumor — when you have been through many medical treatments and nothing’s working anymore. Your doctor may offer you new options, but at some point you may need to consider that treatment is not likely to improve your health or change your outcome or survival.

If you want to continue to get treatment for as long as you can, you need to think about the odds of treatment having any benefit and how this compares to the possible risks and side effects. In many cases, your doctor can estimate how likely it is the tumor will respond to treatment you are considering. For instance, the doctor may say that more treatment might have about a 1 in 100 chance of working. Some people are still tempted to try this. But it is important to think about and understand your reasons for choosing this plan.

No matter what you decide to do, it is important that you feel as good as you can. Make sure you are asking for and getting treatment for any symptoms you might have, such as nausea or pain. This type of treatment is called palliative care.

Palliative care helps relieve symptoms, but is not expected to cure the disease. It can be given along with tumor treatment, or can even be treatment. The difference is its purpose — the main purpose of palliative care is to improve the quality of your life, or help you feel as good as you can for as long as you can. Sometimes this means using drugs to help with symptoms like pain or nausea. Sometimes, though, the treatments used to control your symptoms are the same as those used to treat the tumor. But this is not the same as treatment to try to cure the tumor.

At some point, you may benefit from hospice care. This is special care that treats the person rather than the disease; it focuses on quality rather than length of life. Most of the time, it is given at home. Your tumor may be causing problems that need to be managed, and hospice focuses on your comfort. You should know that while getting hospice care often means the end of treatments such as chemo and radiation, it doesn’t mean you can’t have treatment for the problems caused by your tumor or other health conditions. In hospice the focus of your care is on living life as fully as possible and feeling as well as you can at this difficult time. You can learn more about hospice in our document, Hospice Care.

Staying hopeful is important, too. Your hope for a cure may not be as bright, but there is still hope for good times with family and friends — times that are filled with happiness and meaning. Pausing at this time in your treatment gives you a chance to refocus on the most important things in your life. Now is the time to do some things you’ve always wanted to do and to stop doing the things you no longer want to do. Though the tumor may be beyond your control, there are still choices you can make.


What’s new in adult brain and spinal cord tumor research and treatment?

There is always research going on in the area of brain and spinal cord tumors. Scientists are looking for causes and ways to prevent these tumors, and doctors are working to improve treatments.


Researchers are looking for changes inside brain tumor cells to see if they can be used to help guide treatment. For example, doctors have found that patients with oligodendrogliomas whose cells are missing parts of certain chromosomes (known as a 1p19q co-deletion) are much more likely to be helped by chemotherapy than patients whose tumors do not. Doctors are now testing these tumors for the co-deletion to help determine if these patients should get chemotherapy.

Imaging and surgery techniques

Recent advances have made surgery for brain tumors much safer and more successful. One such technique is fluorescence-guided surgery. For this approach, patients drink a special fluorescent dye a few hours before surgery. The dye is taken up mainly by the tumor, which then glows when the surgeon looks at it under special lighting from the operating microscope. This allows the surgeon to better separate tumor from normal brain.

Radiation therapy

Some newer types of external radiation therapy let doctors deliver radiation more precisely to the tumor, which helps spare normal brain tissue. Techniques such as 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT), intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), and proton beam therapy are described in the section “Radiation therapy for adult brain and spinal cord tumors.”

Newer methods of treatment planning are also being studied. For example, image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT) uses a CT scan done just before each treatment to better guide the radiation to its target.


Along with developing and testing new chemotherapy drugs, many researchers are testing new ways to get chemotherapy to the brain tumor.

Many chemotherapy drugs are limited in their effectiveness because the tightly controlled openings in the brain capillaries, sometimes referred to as the blood-brain barrier, prevents them from getting from the bloodstream to the brain. Researchers are now trying to modify some of these drugs by putting them in tiny droplets of fat (liposomes) or attaching them to molecules that normally cross the blood-brain barrier, to help them work better. This is an area of active research and clinical trials.

For another newer method called convection-enhanced delivery, a small tube is placed into the tumor in the brain through a small hole in the skull during surgery. The tube extends through the scalp and is connected to an infusion pump, through which drugs can be given. This may be done for hours or days and may be repeated more than once, depending on the drug used. This is still an experimental method, and studies are continuing.

Other new treatment strategies

Researchers are also testing some newer approaches to treatment that may help doctors target tumors more precisely. In theory this should produce more effective treatments that cause fewer side effects. Several of these treatments are still being studied.

Tumor vaccines

Several vaccines are being tested against brain tumor cells. Unlike vaccines against infections, these vaccines are meant to help treat the disease instead of prevent it. The goal of the vaccines is to stimulate the body’s immune system to attack the brain tumor.

Early study results of vaccines to help treat glioblastoma have shown promise, but more research is needed to determine how effective they are. At this time, brain tumor vaccines are available only through clinical trials.

Angiogenesis inhibitors

Tumors need to create new blood vessels (a process called angiogenesis) to keep their cells nourished. New drugs that attack these blood vessels are used to help treat some cancers. One of these drugs, bevacizumab (Avastin), has been approved by the FDA to treat recurrent glioblastomas because it has been shown to shrink or slow the growth of some tumors. Further studies are trying to determine if it can help people live longer.

Other drugs that impair blood vessel growth, such as sunitinib (Sutent) and sorafenib (Nexavar), are being studied and are available through clinical trials.

Growth factor inhibitors

Tumor cells are often very sensitive to proteins called growth factors, which help them grow and divide. Newer drugs target some of these growth factors, which may slow the growth of tumor cells or even cause them to die. Several of these targeted drugs are already used for other types of cancer, and some are being studied to see if they will work for brain tumors as well.

Hypoxic cell sensitizers

Some drugs increase the oxygen content in tumors, which may make tumor cells more likely to be killed by radiation therapy if they are given before treatment. These types of drugs are now being studied to see if they can improve the outcome of treatment.

Electric treatment fields

The NovoTTF-100A system has recently been approved by the FDA to treat glioblastomas that are no longer responding to other treatments. To use this device, the head is shaved and 4 sets of electrodes are placed on the scalp. The electrodes are attached to a battery pack and are worn for most of the day. They generate mild electric currents that are thought to affect tumor cells in the brain more than normal cells. In a clinical trial, people using the device lived about as long as those getting further chemotherapy, although they reported a better quality of life because of fewer side effects.


Additional resources for brain and spinal cord tumors

More information from your American Cancer Society

Here is more information you might find helpful. You also can order free copies of our documents from our toll-free number, 1-800-227-2345, or read them on our Web site,

After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)

Caring for the Patient With Cancer at Home: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)

Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know

Imaging (Radiology) Tests

Living With Uncertainty: The Fear of Cancer Recurrence

Pain Control: A Guide for People With Cancer and Their Families (also available in Spanish)

Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)

Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)

Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families (also available in Spanish)

When Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence

Your American Cancer Society also has books that you might find helpful. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit our bookstore online to find out about costs or to place an order.

National organizations and Web sites*

In addition to the American Cancer Society, other sources of patient information and support include:

American Brain Tumor Association
Toll-free number: 1-800-886-2282
Web site:

National Brain Tumor Society
Toll-free number: 1-800-934-2873 (1-800-934-CURE)
Web site:

National Cancer Institute
Toll-free number: 1-800-422-6237 (1-800-4-CANCER)
Web site

National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship
Toll-free number: 1-877-622-7937 (1-877-NCCS-YES)
Web site

*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.

The American Cancer Society is happy to address almost any cancer-related topic. If you have any more questions, please call us at 1-800-227-2345 at any time, 24 hours a day.


By American Cancer Society

February, 2013