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Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors (collectively known as Central Nervous System Cancers) 

An adult central nervous system tumor is a condition in which abnormal cells form in the tissues of the brain and/or spinal cord. The brain and spinal cord are the primary components of the central nervous system (CNS). Tumors of the brain and spinal cord are abnormal growths of tissue found inside the skull or the bony spinal column. Because the CNS is housed within rigid, bony quarters (the skull and spinal column), any abnormal growth can place pressure on sensitive tissues and impair function. This includes both benign (noncancerous) and malignant (cancerous) tumors.  

Causes of Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors 

The cause of most adult brain and spinal cord tumors is not known. There are a few factors that can potentially put someone at risk of developing a brain or spinal cord tumor. These risk factors include: 

  • Radiation exposure 
  • Genetic disorders such as Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), tuberous sclerosis and Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome 
  • A weakened immune system 
  • A family history of brain or spinal tumors 

Symptoms of Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors 

Symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors vary from person to person and generally develop slowly, worsening over time unless they are treated. Signs and symptoms depend on factors such as where the tumor forms in the brain or spinal cord, what the affected part of the brain controls and the size of the tumor.  

General symptoms of brain tumors include: 

  • Morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting 
  • Seizures 
  • 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 
  • Weakness 
  • Unusual sleepiness or change in activity level 

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 or numbness in the arms or legs 
  • Trouble walking 

Diagnosis of Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors 

Doctors will most likely perform tests to examine the brain and spinal cord and diagnose a brain or spinal cord tumor. Common testing methods include: 

  • Physical exam and health history 
  • Neurological exam 
  • Visual field exam 
  • Tumor marker test 
  • Genetic testing 
  • CT, PET or SPECT scans 
  • MRIs 
  • Biopsy 

Treatments for Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors 

Different types of treatment are available for patients with brain and spinal cord tumors. Standard treatment options often include: 

  • Surgery 
  • Radiation therapy 
  • Chemotherapy 
  • Targeted therapy