Brain Tumors


A central nervous system (CNS) tumor commonly refers to a mass of abnormal cells located in or next to the brain or spinal cord. The brain and the spine comprise the CNS, which controls our personality, senses, movements and many basic body functions. More than 120 different types of brain tumors, also referred to as CNS tumors, are recognized.

Primary brain tumors begin in the brain and rarely spread to other parts of the body. A brain tumor can also be a metastatic tumor that has spread from another part of the body to the brain. The main concerns with brain and spinal cord tumors are how fast they grow, how readily they spread through the rest of the brain or spinal cord and if they can be removed or treated to minimize the chance of their coming back.

Anatomy of the Brain

The brain can be divided into lobes, each with specific functions.

Frontal lobes are located behind the forehead and control motor function, language function, problem-solving and judgment.

Parietal lobes are located just behind the frontal lobes and are the primary sensory areas that allow you to experience touch sensations. They also play a role in coordination, which includes handwriting and control of body positions.

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 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.

Other areas of the brain include the cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem. Each area has a special function.

The cerebrum is the large outer part of the brain. It is made up of two hemispheres (halves) and controls reasoning, thought, emotion and language. It is also responsible for voluntary (planned) muscle movements and for taking in and interpreting sensory information such as vision, hearing, smell, touch and pain.

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 connects to the spinal cord. It has bundles of very long nerve fibers that carry signals controlling muscles and sensation or feeling between the cerebrum and the rest of the body. Special centers in the brain stem also help control breathing and heartbeat.

The spinal cord has bundles of very long nerve fibers that carry signals that control muscles, sensation or feeling, and bladder and bowel control.

The cranial nerves extend directly out of the base of the brain (as opposed to coming out of the spinal cord). These nerves carry signals directly between the brain and the face, eyes, tongue, mouth and other areas.

About Brain Tumors

Primary brain tumors can start in any type of tissue or cell in the brain or spinal cord. The type of tumor is determined by the location and types of cells from which it has developed. Tumors can be a mixture of cell types and are further divided into groups by specific cell type and a measurement known as the grade.

When referring to a brain tumor, the meanings of “benign” and “malignant” are different than for a tumor in another part of the body. A mass of cells normally considered benign 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 coming back.

A brain tumor is considered benign (noncancerous) when it is slow-growing, appears to have mostly normal cells when examined with use of a microscope, and has distinct borders, meaning it’s less likely to spread into surrounding tissues.

A brain tumor is classified as malignant (cancerous) when it grows rapidly and is invasive. The tumor 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 cerebro-spinal fluid.


Pediatric Brain Tumors

Brain and spinal cord tumors are the second most common cancers in children (after leukemia). They account for approximately 20 to 25 percent of all childhood cancers. As in adults, tumors in children can form in any type of tissue or cell in the brain or spinal cord.

Although brain tumors may appear in different locations of the brain, 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, ependymoma, central nervous system germ cell tumors and craniopharyngiomas (see Exploring Brain Tumors in Children).

Because children are still growing and developing, treating their brain and spine tumors is different than treating them in adults. Different standards of care are adopted for children, and a team of specialists likely will 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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