More About Cancer of the Brain and Spinal Cord

A network of nerves carries messages back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. The brain directs the things we choose to do, like walking and talking) and the things our body does without thinking, like breathing. The brain also controls our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell), as well as  our memory, emotions and personality.

When most normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body doesn’t need them, and old or damaged cells don’t die as they should. A buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain or the spinal cord, which connects the brain with nerves in most parts of the body, it may stop part of the brain from working the way it should. Together, the brain and the spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). Tumors of the central nervous system cause symptoms and need treatment.


The symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors are not the same in every person because they depend on where the tumor begins in the brain, what that part of the brain controls and the size of the tumor. The most common symptoms of brain tumors include:

  • Headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in speech, vision or hearing
  • Problems balancing or walking
  • Changes in mood, personality or ability to concentrate
  • Problems with memory
  • Muscle jerking or twitching, seizures or convulsions
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
  • Weakness, unusual sleepiness or changes in activity level

The most common symptoms of spinal cord tumors include:

  • Back pain or pain that spreads from the back towards the arms or legs
  • A change in bowel habits or trouble urinating
  • Weakness in the legs
  • Trouble walking

It is important to remember that most of the time, these symptoms are caused by other health problems, not tumors. If you have any of these symptoms, please discuss them with your doctor before assuming that you have cancer.

Screening and Diagnosis

There are no screening tests for cancer of the brain and/or central nervous system. To detect or diagnose these cancers, patients may undergo:

  • Physical exam and health history
  • Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord and nerve function
  • Visual field exam: This test measures both central vision (how much you can see when looking straight ahead) and peripheral vision (how much you can see in all other directions while staring straight ahead)
  • Tumor marker test: A procedure in which a sample of blood, urine or tissue is checked to measure the amounts of tumor markers, which are certain substances that are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the body
  • 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
  • Diagnostic imaging such as a CT scan, MRI, PET scan and/or angiogram


Standard treatments for brain cancer include watchful waiting, surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. You may be eligible for newer treatments, such as biological therapy and targeted therapy, that are being studied in clinical trials. Many people get a combination of treatments. The choice of treatment depends mainly on the following:

  • The type and grade of brain tumor
  • Its location
  • Its size
  • Your age and general health

Your doctor will describe your treatment choices, the expected results and the possible side effects.