Brain and spinal cord tumor in adults definition and facts*
*Adult brain tumor facts medical author: Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD
- The brain is a soft mass of tissue that has three major parts, the cerebrum, cerebellum and the brain stem, all of which are effectively surrounded and protected by the bones of the skull; the brain is the tissue that controls people's voluntary and involuntary actions (that is, bodily functions, thoughts, and sensations).
- Cancer is the unregulated growth of abnormal cells in the body (cancer cells are also termed malignant cells).
- Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells; benign brain tumors do not contain cancer cells but do contain abnormally growing and dividing cells that do not metastasize (spread to other organs) but may still cause problems, often because of their size and are regulated to grow in a specific area.
- Primary brain tumors are composed of abnormal types of brain cells with unregulated growth; the most common type is termed gliomas that arise from brain glial cells, but there are many other types (for example, astrocytomas, ependymomas, medulloblastomas and oligodendrogliomas).
- Secondary brain tumors are metastatic tumors comprised of cells from other organs where cancers have started and then spread through the bloodstream to the brain tissue.
- Symptoms of adult brain tumors, many of which are non-specific and occur in other diseases, may include headaches, nausea, vomiting, speech, hearing or vision changes, memory problems, personality changes and paresthesias (an abnormal sensation of the skin such as numbness, tingling, prickling, burning, or creeping on the skin that has no objective cause), and seizures.
- Brain tumors are diagnosed preliminarily by many methods including detailed physical exam, CT and/or MRI exams, angiograms, and X-rays; definitive diagnosis is by removing tissue from the tumor (tumor biopsy) and examining the cells microscopically.
- The grade of tumor is based on how abnormal the cancer cells look microscopically and how fast the cells grow and spread. Grade are from I to IV, with grade IV the most aggressive cancer.
- Types of adult brain cancers include:
- Brain stem gliomas
- Pineal astrocytic tumor
- Pilocytic astrocytoma
- Diffuse astrocytoma
- Anaplastic astrocytoma
- Oligodendroglial tumors
- Mixed gliomas
- Ependymal tumors
- Pineal parenchymal tumors
- Meningeal tumors
- Germ cell tumor
- Recurrent adult brain tumor is a tumor that has recurred or come back after treatment.
- Metastatic or secondary brain tumors that commonly spread to the brain are lung, breast, unknown primary site, melanoma, and colon cancers.
- You and your medical treatment team (oncologists, neurosurgeons, second opinions, etc.) will discuss your treatment options based upon the type and grade of the tumor, your age, and any existing health problems. Treatment options may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of these therapies. However, in some case no medical treatment is necessary. Clinical trials offer other types and/or new methods that may help some patients.
- Treatment choices for a brain tumor depends on joint decisions made by the patient and the patient's physician team (team members may include oncologists, neurosurgeons, and others the patient may choose, including other doctors who may give a second opinion); treatment methods are based on the individual's disease and may consist of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, combinations of these methods or no treatment.
- Side effects of treatments are common and numerous, but vary from patient to patient depending on the disease, method(s) used and the effectiveness of medications and other methods to reduce them; some of the most common side effects are weakness, nausea, edema, skin changes and hair loss but may include more serious problems such as infections, seizures, disabilities such as speech problems, mental changes and occasionally, death.
- Rehabilitation is frequently included in the treatment plan; specialists like physical, occupational and speech therapists can help the patient improve.
- Follow-up appointments are part of the treatment plan for brain tumors to catch any recurrent disease and to help with rehabilitation treatments.
- Support groups are available to patients with brain tumors and to patients who have and are undergoing treatments, for example, the American Cancer Society, American Brain Tumor Society.
Types of Benign (Non-Cancerous) Brain Tumors
Most common types of benign brain tumors
The majority of benign brain tumors arise from brain or brain-associated tissue (for example, nerve tissue, blood vessels). The following is a list of the most frequently diagnosed benign brain tumors:
- meningioma – tumor arising from the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord; this accounts for about 20% of brain tumors
- schwannoma (also termed acoustic neuroma) – tumor in the 8th cranial nerve arising from Schwann cells (insulating cells of the nervous system); this accounts for about 9% of all brain tumors
- pituitary adenomas – pituitary gland tumor; this accounts for about 8% of brain tumors
- hemangioblastomasa – vascular tissue mass, sometimes cystic; this accounts for about 2% of brain tumors
- craniopharyngioma – a cystic tumor from cell remnants of Rathke’s pouch (nasopharynx), usually occurring in children; this accounts for about 1%-3% of brain tumors
- choroid plexus papilloma – choroid plexus tissue (the tissue responsible for the production of cerebrospinal fluid or CSF) mass that blocks cerebrospinal fluid flow, usually in children; this accounts for less than 1% of brain tumors
What functions do the different parts of the brain control?
The brain controls many important body functions.
The brain has three major parts:
- The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It is at the top of the head. The cerebrum controls thinking, learning, problem solving, emotions, speech, reading, writing, and voluntary movement.
- The cerebellum is in the lower back of the brain (near the middle of the back of the head). It controls movement, balance, and posture.
- The brain stem connects the brain to the spinal cord. It is in the lowest part of the brain (just above the back of the neck). The brain stem controls breathing, heart rate, and the nerves and muscles used to see, hear, walk, talk, and eat.
The spinal cord connects the brain to nerves in most parts of the body.
The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that runs from the brain stem down the center of the back. It is covered by three thin layers of tissue called membranes. These membranes are surrounded by the vertebrae (back bones). Spinal cord nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body, such as a message from the brain to cause muscles to move or a message from the skin to the brain to feel touch.
Cancer is the result of the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells anywhere in the body.
What is brain tumor? What is a spinal cord tumor?
An adult central nervous system tumor is a disease in which abnormal cells form in the tissues of the brain and/or spinal cord.
There are many types of brain and spinal cord tumors. The tumors are formed by the abnormal growth of cells and may begin in different parts of the brain or spinal cord. Together, the brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS).
The tumors may be either benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer):
- Benign brain and spinal cord tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain. They rarely spread into other tissues and may recur (come back).
- Malignant brain and spinal cord tumors are likely to grow quickly and spread into other brain tissue.
When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from working the way it should. Both benign and malignant brain tumors cause signs and symptoms and need treatment.
Brain and spinal cord tumors can occur in both adults and children. However, treatment for children may be different than treatment for adults.
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Signs and symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors in adults
The signs and symptoms of adult brain and spinal cord tumors are not the same in every person.
Signs and symptoms depend on the following:
- Where the tumor forms in the brain or spinal cord.
- What the affected part of the brain controls.
- The size of the tumor.
Signs and symptoms may be caused by CNS tumors or by other conditions, including cancer that has spread to the brain. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:
Brain Tumor Symptoms
- Morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting.
- Vision, hearing, and speech problems.
- Loss of appetite.
- Frequent nausea and vomiting.
- Changes in personality, mood, ability to focus, or behavior.
- Loss of balance and trouble walking.
- Unusual sleepiness or change in activity level.
Spinal Cord Tumor Symptoms
- Back pain or pain that spreads from the back towards the arms or legs.
- A change in bowel habits or trouble urinating.
- Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs.
- Trouble walking.
Metastatic brain and spinal cord tumors in adults
Tumors that start in the brain are called primary brain tumors. Primary brain tumors may spread to other parts of the brain or to the spine. They rarely spread to other parts of the body.
Often, tumors found in the brain have started somewhere else in the body and spread to one or more parts of the brain. These are called metastatic brain tumors (or brain metastases). Metastatic brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors.
Up to half of metastatic brain tumors are from lung cancer. Other types of cancer that commonly spread to the brain include:
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Nasopharyngeal cancer
- Cancer of unknown primary site
Cancer may spread to the leptomeninges (the two innermost membranes covering the brain and spinal cord). This is called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. The most common cancers that spread to the leptomeninges include:
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WHO Tumor Grading System
- Grade I (low-grade) — The tumor cells look more like normal cells under a microscope and grow and spread more slowly than grade II, III, and IV tumor cells. They rarely spread into nearby tissues. Grade I brain tumors may be cured if they are completely removed by surgery.
- Grade II – The tumor cells grow and spread more slowly than grade III and IV tumor cells. They may spread into nearby tissue and may recur (come back). Some tumors may become a higher-grade tumor.
- Grade III – The tumor cells look very different from normal cells under a microscope and grow more quickly than grade I and II tumor cells. They are likely to spread into nearby tissue.
- Grade IV (high-grade) – The tumor cells do not look like normal cells under a microscope and grow and spread very quickly. There may be areas of dead cells in the tumor. Grade IV tumors usually cannot be cured.
Genetic syndromes and risks
Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk. There are few known risk factors for brain tumors. The following conditions may increase the risk of certain types of brain tumors:
- Being exposed to vinyl chloride may increase the risk of glioma.
- Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, having AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), or receiving an organ transplant may increase the risk of primary CNS lymphoma. (See the PDQ summary on Primary CNS Lymphoma for more information.)
- Having certain genetic syndromes may increase the risk brain tumors:
The cause of most adult brain and spinal cord tumors is not known.
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Types of brain tumors in adults
An astrocytic tumor begins in star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes, which help keep nerve cells healthy. An astrocyte is a type of glial cell. Glial cells sometimes form tumors called gliomas. Astrocytic tumors include:
- Brain stem glioma (usually high grade): A brain stem glioma forms in the brain stem, which is the part of the brain connected to the spinal cord. It is often a high-grade tumor, which spreads widely through the brain stem and is hard to cure. Brain stem gliomas are rare in adults.
- Pineal astrocytic tumor (any grade): A pineal astrocytic tumor forms in tissue around the pineal gland and may be any grade. The pineal gland is a tiny organ in the brain that makes melatonin, a hormone that helps control the sleeping and waking cycle.
- Pilocytic astrocytoma (grade I): A pilocytic astrocytoma grows slowly in the brain or spinal cord. It may be in the form of a cyst and rarely spreads into nearby tissues. Pilocytic astrocytomas can often be cured.
- Diffuse astrocytoma (grade II): A diffuse astrocytoma grows slowly, but often spreads into nearby tissues. The tumor cells look something like normal cells. In some cases, a diffuse astrocytoma can be cured. It is also called a low-grade diffuse astrocytoma.
- Anaplastic astrocytoma (grade III): An anaplastic astrocytoma grows quickly and spreads into nearby tissues. The tumor cells look different from normal cells. This type of tumor usually cannot be cured. An anaplastic astrocytoma is also called a malignant astrocytoma or high-grade astrocytoma.
- Glioblastoma (grade IV): A glioblastoma grows and spreads very quickly. The tumor cells look very different from normal cells. This type of tumor usually cannot be cured. It is also called glioblastoma multiforme.
An oligodendroglial tumor begins in brain cells called oligodendrocytes, which help keep nerve cells healthy. An oligodendrocyte is a type of glial cell. Oligodendrocytes sometimes form tumors called oligodendrogliomas. Grades of oligodendroglial tumors include the following:
- Oligodendroglioma (grade II): An oligodendroglioma grows slowly, but often spreads into nearby tissues. The tumor cells look something like normal cells. In some cases, an oligodendroglioma can be cured.
- Anaplastic oligodendroglioma (grade III): An anaplastic oligodendroglioma grows quickly and spreads into nearby tissues. The tumor cells look different from normal cells. This type of tumor usually cannot be cured.
A mixed glioma is a brain tumor that has two types of tumor cells in it — oligodendrocytes and astrocytes. This type of mixed tumor is called an oligoastrocytoma.
- Oligoastrocytoma (grade II): An oligoastrocytoma is a slow-growing tumor. The tumor cells look something like normal cells. In some cases, an oligoastrocytoma can be cured.
- Anaplastic oligoastrocytoma (grade III): An anaplastic oligoastrocytoma grows quickly and spreads into nearby tissues. The tumor cells look different from normal cells. This type of tumor has a worse prognosis than oligoastrocytoma (grade II).
An ependymal tumor usually begins in cells that line the fluid-filled spaces in the brain and around the spinal cord. An ependymal tumor may also be called an ependymoma. Grades of ependymomas include the following:
- Ependymoma (grade I or II): A grade I or II ependymoma grows slowly and has cells that look something like normal cells. There are two types of grade I ependymoma – myxopapillary ependymoma and subependymoma. A grade II ependymoma grows in a ventricle (fluid-filled space in the brain) and its connecting paths or in the spinal cord. In some cases, a grade I or II ependymoma can be cured.
- Anaplastic ependymoma (grade III): An anaplastic ependymoma grows quickly and spreads into nearby tissues. The tumor cells look different from normal cells. This type of tumor usually has a worse prognosis than a grade I or II ependymoma.
A medulloblastoma is a type of embryonal tumor. Medulloblastomas are most common in children or young adults.
Pineal Parenchymal Tumors
A pineal parenchymal tumor forms in parenchymal cells or pineocytes, which are the cells that make up most of the pineal gland. These tumors are different from pineal astrocytic tumors. Grades of pineal parenchymal tumors include the following:
- Pineocytoma (grade II): A pineocytoma is a slow-growing pineal tumor.
- Pineoblastoma (grade IV): A pineoblastoma is a rare tumor that is very likely to spread.
A meningeal tumor, also called a meningioma, forms in the meninges (thin layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord). It can form from different types of brain or spinal cord cells. Meningiomas are most common in adults. Types of meningeal tumors include the following:
- Meningioma (grade I): A grade I meningioma is the most common type of meningeal tumor. A grade I meningioma is a slow-growing tumor. It forms most often in the dura mater. A grade I meningioma can be cured if it is completely removed by surgery.
- Meningioma (grade II and III): This is a rare meningeal tumor. It grows quickly and is likely to spread within the brain and spinal cord. The prognosis is worse than a grade I meningioma because the tumor usually cannot be completely removed by surgery.
A hemangiopericytoma is not a meningeal tumor but is treated like a grade II or III meningioma. A hemangiopericytoma usually forms in the dura mater. The prognosis is worse than a grade I meningioma because the tumor usually cannot be completely removed by surgery.
Germ Cell Tumors
A germ cell tumor forms in germ cells, which are the cells that develop into sperm in men or ova (eggs) in women. There are different types of germ cell tumors. These include germinomas, teratomas, embryonal yolk sac carcinomas, and choriocarcinomas. Germ cell tumors can be either benign or malignant.
Craniopharyngioma (Grade I)
A craniopharyngioma is a rare tumor that usually forms in the center of the brain just above the pituitary gland (a pea-sized organ at the bottom of the brain that controls other glands). Craniopharyngiomas can form from different types of brain or spinal cord cells.
How are brain and spinal cord tumors diagnosed?
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.
- Visual field exam: An exam to check a person’s field of vision (the total area in which objects can be seen). This test measures both central vision (how much a person can see when looking straight ahead) and peripheral vision (how much a person can see in all other directions while staring straight ahead). Any loss of vision may be a sign of a tumor that has damaged or pressed on the parts of the brain that affect eyesight.
- Tumor marker test: A procedure in which a sample of blood, urine, or tissue is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances made by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the body. These are called tumor markers. This test may be done to diagnose a germ cell tumor.
- Gene testing: A laboratory test in which a sample of blood or tissue is tested for changes in a chromosome that has been linked with a certain type of brain tumor. This test may be done to diagnose an inherited syndrome.
- CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) with gadolinium: A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of the brain and spinal cord. A substance called gadolinium is injected into a vein. The gadolinium collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI). MRI is often used to diagnose tumors in the spinal cord. Sometimes a procedure called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is done during the MRI scan. An MRS is used to diagnose tumors, based on their chemical make-up.
- SPECT scan (single photon emission computed tomography scan): A procedure that uses a special camera linked to a computer to make a 3-dimensional (3-D) picture of the brain. A very small amount of a radioactive substance is injected into a vein or inhaled through the nose. As the substance travels through the blood, the camera rotates around the head and takes pictures of the brain. Blood flow and metabolism are higher than normal in areas where cancer cells are growing. These areas will show up brighter in the picture. This procedure may be done just before or after a CT scan. SPECT is used to tell the difference between a primary tumor and a tumor that has spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body.
- PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the brain. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do. PET is used to tell the difference between a primary tumor and a tumor that has spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body.
Brain and spinal cord biopsy
A biopsy is also used to diagnose a brain tumor. If imaging tests show there may be a brain tumor, a biopsy is usually done. One of the following types of biopsies may be used:
- Stereotactic biopsy: When imaging tests show there may be a tumor deep in the brain in a hard to reach place, a stereotactic brain biopsy may be done. This kind of biopsy uses a computer and a 3-dimensional (3-D) scanning device to find the tumor and guide the needle used to remove the tissue. A small incision is made in the scalp and a small hole is drilled through the skull. A biopsy needle is inserted through the hole to remove cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.
- Open biopsy: When imaging tests show that there may be a tumor that can be removed by surgery, an open biopsy may be done. A part of the skull is removed in an operation called a craniotomy. A sample of brain tissue is removed and viewed under a microscope by a pathologist. If cancer cells are found, some or all of the tumor may be removed during the same surgery. Tests are done before surgery to find the areas around the tumor that are important for normal brain function. There are also ways to test brain function during surgery. The doctor will use the results of these tests to remove as much of the tumor as possible with the least damage to normal tissue in the brain.
The pathologist checks the biopsy sample to find out the type and grade of brain tumor. The grade of the tumor is based on how the tumor cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread.
The following tests may be done on the tumor tissue that is removed:
- Immunohistochemistry: A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.
- Light and electron microscopy: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under regular and high-powered microscopes to look for certain changes in the cells.
- Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
For some tumors, a biopsy or surgery cannot be done safely because of where the tumor formed in the brain or spinal cord. These tumors are diagnosed and treated based on the results of imaging tests and other procedures.
Sometimes the results of imaging tests and other procedures show that the tumor is very likely to be benign and a biopsy is not done.
What are the treatment options for brain and spinal cord tumors in adults?
Five types of standard treatment are used to treat adult brain and spinal cord tumors.
Active surveillance is closely watching a patient’s condition but not giving any treatment unless there are changes in test results that show the condition is getting worse. Active surveillance may be used to avoid or delay the need for treatments such as radiation therapy or surgery, which can cause side effects or other problems. During active surveillance, certain exams and tests are done on a regular schedule. Active surveillance may be used for very slow-growing tumors that do not cause symptoms.
Surgery may be used to diagnose and treat adult brain and spinal cord tumors. Removing tumor tissue helps decrease pressure of the tumor on nearby parts of the brain. See the General Information section of this summary.
Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Certain ways of giving radiation therapy can help keep radiation from damaging nearby healthy tissue. These types of radiation therapy include:
Conformal radiation therapy: Conformal radiation therapy is a type of external radiation therapy that uses a computer to make a 3-dimensional (3-D) picture of the tumor and shapes the radiation beams to fit the tumor.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) external radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles.
- Stereotactic radiosurgery: Stereotactic radiosurgery is a type of external radiation therapy. A rigid head frame is attached to the skull to keep the head still during the radiation treatment. A machine aims a single large dose of radiation directly at the tumor. This procedure does not involve surgery. It is also called stereotaxic radiosurgery, radiosurgery, and radiation surgery.
Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and grade of tumor and where it is in the brain or spinal cord. External radiation therapy is used to treat adult central nervous system tumors.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug. To treat brain tumors, a wafer that dissolves may be used to deliver an anticancer drug directly to the brain tumor site after the tumor has been removed by surgery. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and grade of tumor and where it is in the brain.
Anticancer drugs given by mouth or vein to treat brain and spinal cord tumors cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Instead, an anticancer drug is injected into the fluid-filled space to kill cancer cells there. This is called intrathecal chemotherapy.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.
Monoclonal antibody therapy is a type of targeted therapy that uses antibodies made in the laboratory from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.
Bevacizumab is a monoclonal antibody that binds to a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and may prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow. Bevacizumab is used in the treatment of recurrent glioblastoma.
Other types of targeted therapies are being studied for adult brain tumors, including tyrosine kinase inhibitors and new VEGF inhibitors.
Supportive care is given to lessen the problems caused by the disease or its treatment.
This therapy controls problems or side effects caused by the disease or its treatment and improves quality of life. For brain tumors, supportive care includes drugs to control seizures and fluid buildup or swelling in the brain.
New types of clinical trial treatments for brain and spinal cord tumors in adults
This summary section refers to new treatments being studied in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied.
Proton beam radiation therapy
Proton beam radiation therapy is a type of high-energy, external radiation therapy that uses streams of protons (small, positively-charged pieces of matter) to make radiation. This type of radiation kills tumor cells with little damage to nearby tissues. It is used to treat cancers of the head, neck, and spine and organs such as the brain, eye, lung, and prostate. Proton beam radiation is different from x-ray radiation.
Biologic therapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or immunotherapy.
Biologic therapy is being studied for the treatment of some types of brain tumors. Treatments may include:
- Dendritic cell vaccine therapy.
- Gene therapy.
Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.
Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
The following tests and procedures may be used to check whether a brain tumor has come back after treatment:
- SPECT scan (single photon emission computed tomography scan): A procedure that uses a special camera linked to a computer to make a 3-dimensional (3-D) picture of the brain. A very small amount of a radioactive substance is injected into a vein or inhaled through the nose. As the substance travels through the blood, the camera rotates around the head and takes pictures of the brain. Blood flow and metabolism are higher than normal in areas where cancer cells are growing. These areas will show up brighter in the picture. This procedure may be done just before or after a CT scan.
- PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the brain. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
To Learn More
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
Web sites and Organizations
The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. There are also many other places where people can get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Local hospitals may have information on local and regional agencies that offer information about finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems associated with cancer treatment.
The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.
The NCI's LiveHelp service, a program available on several of the Institute's Web sites, provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.
For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:
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