Brain and spinal cord tumors are masses of abnormal cells in the brain or spinal cord that have grown out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?
In most other parts of the body, it is very important to distinguish between benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous) tumors. Benign tumors do not grow into nearby tissues or spread to distant areas, so in other parts of the body they are almost never life threatening. One of the main reasons malignant tumors 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, press on and destroy 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 tend to be different in adults and children. They often form in different areas, develop from different cell types, and may have a different outlook and treatment.
Brain and spinal cord tumors can often be hard to treat and may require care from a team of different types of 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 brain and nervous system diseases and treats them with medicines
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 physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and other health professionals.
Several types of treatment can be used to treat brain and spinal cord tumors, including:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
- Other types of drugs
Treatment is based on the type of tumor and other factors, and often more than one type of treatment is used. Doctors plan each person’s treatment individually to give them the best chance of treating the cancer while limiting the side effects as much as possible.