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Brain/Spinal Cord Cancers in Adults

What are brain/spinal cord cancers in adults?

Brain and spinal cord cancers are masses of accumulated abnormal cells (tumors) found inside the skull or the spinal column that have grown out of control. Tumors occur when genes that regulate normal cell growth are mutated or damaged, which leads to cells growing and dividing out of control. The medical name for the brain and spinal cord is the central nervous system; while the brain controls our thoughts, memories, speech, feelings, vision, hearing, movement and more, the spinal cord helps to carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Since brain and spinal cord tumors tend to be different in adults and children—forming in different areas, developing from different cell types, and requiring different treatments—this page only discusses brain and spinal cord cancers in adults. To learn more about them in children, click here.  Brain tumors are slightly more common in males than females, and most often occur in middle-aged to older adults. A significant risk factor may have to do with occupation: people who work jobs that involve repeated contact with ionizing radiation or certain chemicals may have a greater risk of developing these tumors. Spinal cord tumors are less common than brain tumors. They can affect people of all ages but are most common in young adults and middle-aged adults.

What are the types and classifications of brain/spinal cord tumors?

There are more than 120 types of brain and spinal cord tumors. Most are named by either the type of normal cell they start in or their location. Primary tumors can start in almost any type of tissue or cell within the brain and spinal cord, but in adults brain tumors are more likely to start in the upper portion of the brain. Tumors in different places of the central nervous system may be treated differently. Primary tumors versus metastatic/secondary tumors:
  • Tumors that actually start in the brain are called primary brain tumors.
  • Tumors that start in other organs and then spread to the brain are called secondary or metastatic brain tumors. They are treated differently than primary tumors. In adults, metastatic brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors.
Malignant tumors versus benign tumors:
  • Malignant tumors are cancerous masses of cells that can quickly invade surrounding tissue. Since they spread rapidly, they are often difficult to remove surgically.
  • Benign tumors are non-cancerous, slowly growing masses of cells that do not spread to completely different body parts. However, benign tumors can still cause damage by growing and spreading to other parts of the brain, which can destroy normal brain tissue. They can usually be removed surgically and do not come back.

What are the symptoms of brain/spinal cord cancers in adults?

Symptoms can vary widely, and they depend on the type of tumor, location, size and rate of growth of the tumor. So, it is important to note that each individual may not experience all the symptoms listed below. They typically develop slowly and get worse as the tumor grows.
  • Headaches that tend to get worse over time
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Problems with balance and coordination (dizziness, trouble walking, clumsiness)
  • Vision problems
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Seizures
  • Changes in behavior
  • Changes in personality
  • Problems with speech, language, thinking, memory
  • Drowsiness or even coma
  • Hydrocephalus (build-up of fluid in cavities within the brain)
  • Hearing problems
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Facial paralysis and sagging eyelids
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Weakness or numbness in parts of the of body
  • Decreased skin sensitivity
  • Bladder or bowel problems
  • Loss of coordination in arms and/or legs

What causes brain/spinal cord cancers in adults?

Normal, healthy cells grow at a steady rate, and die at a set time. However, sometimes healthy cells develop abnormalities; they grow and multiply at an out of control rate, and take much longer to die. When this happens to cells in the brain or spinal cord, they accumulate into a tumor there. Still, researchers are not completely sure as to why primary brain and spinal cord tumors develop. Unlike many other cancers, tumors that start in the brain and spinal cord don’t often spread to other organs. Possible causes include viruses, defective genes, exposure to hazardous chemicals and materials, and immune system disorders. In rare cases, the brain and spinal cord cancer can run in the family.

How are brain/spinal cord cancers in adults diagnosed?

Brain/spinal cord cancers are diagnosed using the following procedures:
  • Neurological exam
  • Physical exam
  • Recording of medical and family history
  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Various MRI scans
  • PET scan
  • Angiography/arteriogram
  • Blood test
  • Urine test
  • Biopsy
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
After diagnosis, doctors examine the affected cells under a microscope and assign the tumor a grade.

What are brain/spinal cord tumor grades?

The tumor’s grade explains how likely it is to grow into nearby tissue and how fast it is growing.
  • Grade I: Tumor grows slowly and does not invade nearby tissue. Can usually be removed by surgery.
  • Grade II: Tumor grows slowly but can grow into nearby brain tissue. It is more likely to come back after surgery than a Grade I tumor and more likely to become a faster-growing tumor over time.
  • Grade III: Tumor can grow into nearby brain tissue. Tumor looks abnormal under the microscope and likely will need other treatments besides surgery.
  • Grade IV: The fastest growing tumor. This needs the most aggressive treatment.

What are the treatments for brain/spinal cord cancers in adults?

Unless they are removed or destroyed completely, most brain and spinal cord tumors will continue to grow and become life threatening. Treatment is dependent on the tumor type, size, location, and aggressiveness, as well as the individual’s health and preferences. It usually requires a specialized team of doctors to help, including neurologists, oncologists, neuro-oncologists, etc. Treatment includes:
  • Anticonvulsants to treat seizures
  • Pain medications
  • Steroids to reduce swelling and improve blood flow
  • Antidepressants to treat potential anxiety and depression following diagnosis
  • Neurosurgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Rehab after treatment

Where can I find out more about brain/spinal cord cancers in adults?

Brain/Spinal Cord Cancers in Adults Articles