Brain Tumors


Receiving a brain tumor diagnosis can lead to many emotions, questions and concerns. Your diagnosis may bring challenges you hadn’t planned on, but the promising news is that you are not alone. Surrounding yourself with a skilled medical team you trust and supportive family and friends will enable you to face this experience head on. The more you know about your diagnosis, the more prepared you will be to make decisions about your treatment.

When doctors refer to brain tumors, they include the spine and spinal cord in addition to the brain. These three areas make up the central nervous system (CNS), which controls our personality, senses, movements and many basic bodily functions. A mass of abnormal cells that develops in or next to the brain or spinal cord is commonly referred to as a CNS tumor.

Brain tumors can affect adults and children, but they may require different diagnostic and treatment approaches. This information focuses mostly on adult brain tumors that originate in the brain or spinal cord.

Understanding Brain Tumors

Brain tumors are categorized as either primary or metastatic. Primary brain tumors begin in the brain tissue and rarely spread to other parts of the body. Metastatic brain tumors (also known as secondary tumors) are cancer that has spread to the brain from another site. In addition to where tumors start, it’s important to know how fast they are metastasizing, how readily they are spreading through the rest of the brain or spinal cord, and if they can be removed or treated to minimize the chance they will return (recur).

The brain and spinal cord are composed of multiple types of tissues and cells. Primary brain tumors can start in any of these tissues or cells. Tumors may be one type of cell or a mixture. As a result, tumors are divided into groups by specific cell type, and a measurement known as the grade is assigned.

Primary brain tumors may be considered benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). However, a benign tumor can be just as dangerous or life-threatening as a malignant tumor if it’s located in or near an area of the brain that controls crucial functions, or has a tendency to keep returning.

Benign tumors are slow-growing, appear to have mostly normal cells when examined with a microscope, and have distinct borders, meaning they’re less likely to spread into surrounding tissues. Malignant brain tumors grow rapidly and are invasive. They may have “roots” that extend into surrounding tissue, making the tumor borders less defined and more difficult to remove surgically. Although brain tumors rarely spread to distant organs, malignant tumors may spread to other areas of the brain or spine through the cerebrospinal fluid.

Brain Anatomy

To begin to understand your diagnosis, it’s helpful to know the anatomy of the brain. The main areas of the brain include the cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem.

The cerebrum is the large outer part of the brain. It is made up of two hemispheres (halves) and is further divided into four lobes. Frontal lobes are located behind the forehead. Parietal lobes are located just behind the frontal lobes. Temporal lobes are responsible for memory and hearing; they are located under the frontal and parietal lobes. Occipital lobes are located at the back of the brain and process visual images from your eyes.

The cerebellum lies under the cerebrum at the back part of the brain. It helps coordinate movement and balance.

The brain stem is the lower part of the brain that is connected to the spinal cord. It controls the nerves and muscles that are responsible for involuntary functions, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and body temperature.

The spinal cord is made up of nerve fibers that are protected by membranes and the bones of the spine. The spinal cord allows the brain to send and receive signals from the rest of the body to control muscles, sensation and feeling.

The cranial nerves emerge directly out of the base of the brain. These nerves allow direct communication to occur between the brain and the face, eyes, ears, tongue, mouth, neck and other areas.

The brain and spinal cord are surrounded by three protective membranes (layers of tissue) collectively known as the meninges. Cerebrospinal fluid, which also protects the CNS, flows through a network of cavities in the brain called ventricles.


Pediatric Brain Tumors

Brain and spinal cord tumors are the second most common cancers in children. They account for approximately 20 to 25 percent of all childhood cancers. Brain tumors in children can form in any type of tissue or cell in any location of the brain or spinal cord. They often behave differently than brain tumors in adults. Treatments vary depending on the type of tumor, its location and the age of the child.

The most common types of brain tumors in children are central nervous system embryonal tumors, brain stem gliomas, astrocytomas, ependymomas, central nervous system germ cell tumors and craniopharyngiomas (see Pediatric Brain Tumors).

Because children are still growing and developing, treating their brain and spine tumors is different than treating those in adults. Different standards of care are adopted for children, and a team of specialists will likely be involved. The team may include pediatric neurosurgeons; pediatric oncologists; pediatric radiation oncologists; rehabilitation specialists in occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy; pediatric nurse specialists; social workers; child life specialists; and others.



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