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What are Brain Tumors & Spinal Tumors?

Cancers that begin in brain tissue or the spinal cord are known as central nervous system cancers. Primary brain tumors develop in the brain. If the tumor began in another part of the body but spread to the brain, it is called a secondary brain tumor or brain metastases.

Benign brain tumors begin in cells within or around the brain, but they grow slowly and don’t spread. Still, they can recur (grow back) after treatment. Malignant tumors are cancerous and can have more dangerous effects. They are known to grow quickly and spread into other areas of the brain. They may also recur after treatment. Metastatic or secondary brain tumors begin in other parts of the body like the lung, breast, colon or skin, but spread to the brain. In any case, if a tumor grows in the brain and presses on nearby areas, it can lead to unwanted signs & symptoms.

There are over 120 types of brain tumors and central nervous system tumors.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a brain tumor or spinal cord tumor, you are not alone. The Cancer Support Community has educational resources and tools to help you cope. Find information on coping as a patient and a caregiver and about treatment options.

Call our Cancer Support Helpline and talk to a counselor

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Diagnosing Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors

There are a number of diagnostic tests used to find a brain or spinal cord tumor. If a tumor is found, surgery is often the next step. Surgery is used to both diagnose (with a biopsy) and treat brain cancer. Tissue samples are needed to name and stage the cancer, based on the World Health Organization (WHO) classification system for brain tumors. A pathologist will grade tumors by reviewing tissue samples under a microscope. Grades range from “grade I” (benign or the least aggressive), to “grade IV” (malignant and the most aggressive).

Physical Exam

Your doctor will assess your overall health. You will be tested for fever, high blood pressure and swollen lymph nodes.

Neurological (or "Neuro") Exam

You will answer questions and perform tests that check brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. Are you walking normally? How well do your muscles, senses, and reflexes work?

    Visual Field Exam

    Your field of vision will be evaluated. Any loss of vision may be a sign of a tumor affecting the parts of the brain that affect eyesight.

    Gene Testing

    If you have a family history of brain tumors, your doctor may recommend tests for an inherited syndrome.

      Imaging Tests

      One or more imaging test would be used to ultimately find a brain or spinal cord tumor.

      Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) – This test uses nuclear magnetic resonance to take detailed pictures of the brain. During this test a dye called gadolinium may be used. It collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture.

      Perfusion MRI – This test may also be done during the MRI to look at blood flow in the tumor.

      Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS) – MRS is used to identify the chemical make-up of tumor tissue. It may also be done during the MRI.

      CT scan – This X-ray test creates detailed cross-sectional images of your brain and spinal cord. The CT scanner takes many pictures of the soft tissues in the body as it rotates around. This is usually done in emergency situations or if the patient cannot have a MRI.

      PET Scan – During this test a small amount of radioactive dye (often glucose (sugar)) is injected into a vein. The scanner rotates around the body and shows where the dye is found. Malignant tumor cells use more glucose than normal cells since they are more active, so in the pictures they look brighter.

      SPECT Scan – This test creates a 3-D picture of the brain with the use of a radioactive dye (injected through a vein or inhaled through the nose). Where cancer cells are growing, there will be more chemical reactions. These areas show the dye and look brighter in the picture. This scan may be done just before or after a CT scan.

      Angiogram – This test uses X-rays to look at blood vessels and the flow of blood in the brain. It is rarely used today.