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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):
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. (See the PDQ summary on Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview for more information on the treatment of children.)
For information about lymphoma that begins in the brain, see the PDQ summary on Primary CNS Lymphoma Treatment.
A tumor that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the brain is called a metastatic brain tumor.
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:
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:
See the following for more information from PDQ about cancers that commonly spread to the brain or spinal cord:
The brain controls many important body functions.
The brain has three major parts:
Anatomy of the brain showing the cerebrum, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), cerebellum, brain stem (pons and medulla), and other parts of the brain.
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.
There are different types of brain and spinal cord tumors.
Brain and spinal cord tumors are named based on the type of cell they formed in and where the tumor first formed in the CNS. The grade of a tumor may be used to tell the difference between slow-growing and fast-growing types of the tumor. The World Health Organization (WHO) tumor grades are based on how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread.
WHO Tumor Grading System
The following types of primary tumors can form in the brain or spinal cord:
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 the following:
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment for more information about astrocytomas in children.
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:
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment for more information about oligodendroglial tumors in children.
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.
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment for more information about mixed gliomas in children.
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:
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Ependymoma Treatment for more information about ependymoma in children.
A medulloblastoma is a type of embryonal tumor. Medulloblastomas are most common in children or young adults.
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Medulloblastoma and Other Central Nervous System Embryonal Tumors Treatment for more information about medulloblastomas in children.
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:
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Medulloblastoma and Other Central Nervous System Embryonal Tumors Treatment for more information about pineal parenchymal tumors in children.
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:
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.
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Central Nervous System Germ Cell Tumors Treatment for more information about childhood germ cell tumors in the brain.
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.
See the PDQ summary on Childhood Craniopharyngioma Treatment for more information about craniopharyngioma in children.
Having certain genetic syndromes may increase the risk of a central nervous system tumor.
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:
The cause of most adult brain and spinal cord tumors is not known.
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:
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
Spinal Cord Tumor Symptoms
Tests that examine the brain and spinal cord are used to diagnose adult brain and spinal cord tumors.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
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:
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:
Sometimes a biopsy or surgery cannot be done.
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.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis and treatment options for primary brain and spinal cord tumors depend on the following:
The prognosis and treatment options for metastatic brain and spinal cord tumors depend on the following:
There is no standard staging system for adult brain and spinal cord tumors.
The process to find out if cancer has spread to other areas of the brain or to other parts of the body is called staging. Brain tumors that begin in the brain rarely spread to other parts of the body. There is no standard staging system for brain and spinal cord tumors.
Treatment of primary brain and spinal cord tumors is based on the following:
Treatment of tumors that have spread to the brain from other parts of the body is based on the number of tumors in the brain.
Imaging tests may be repeated after surgery to help plan more treatment.
Some of the tests and procedures used to diagnose a brain or spinal cord tumor may be repeated after treatment to find out how much tumor is left.
CNS tumors often recur, sometimes many years after treatment.
A recurrent central nervous system (CNS) tumor is a tumor that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The tumor may recur at the same place as the first tumor or in other parts of the central nervous system.
There are different types of treatment for patients with adult brain and spinal cord tumors.
Different types of treatment are available for patients with adult brain and spinal cord tumors. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Five types of standard treatment are used:
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 , certain exams and tests are done on a regular schedule. Active 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.
After 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. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.
External-beam radiation therapy of the brain. A machine is used to aim high-energy radiation. The machine can rotate around the patient, delivering radiation from many different angles. A mesh mask helps keep the patient's head from moving during treatment. Small ink marks are put on the mask. The ink marks are used to line up the radiation machine in the same position before each treatment.
Certain ways of giving external radiation therapy can help keep radiation from damaging nearby healthy tissue. These types of radiation therapy include the following:
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). Although most cannot, some chemotherapy drugs can cross the blood-brain barrier and reach tumor cells in the brain. Chemotherapy that is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid is called intrathecal chemotherapy. When chemotherapy is inserted in an organ, such as the brain, or a body cavity, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy).
To treat brain tumors, a wafer that dissolves may be used to deliver a chemotherapy 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.
See Drugs Approved for Brain Tumors for more information.
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapy may cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do.
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 treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section refers to new treatments being studied in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
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.
Immunotherapy 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 biologic therapy.
Immunotherapy is being studied for the treatment of some types of brain tumors. Treatments may include the following:
Treatment for adult central nervous system tumors may cause side effects.
For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
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. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI's clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Follow-up tests may be needed.
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:
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
Brain Stem Gliomas
Treatment of brain stem gliomas may include the following:
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Pineal Astrocytic Tumors
Treatment of pineal astrocytic tumors may include the following:
Treatment of pilocytic astrocytomas may include the following:
Treatment of diffuse astrocytomas may include the following:
Treatment of anaplastic astrocytomas may include the following:
Treatment of glioblastomas may include the following:
Treatment of oligodendrogliomas may include the following:
Treatment of anaplastic oligodendroglioma may include the following:
Treatment of mixed gliomas may include the following:
Treatment of grade I and grade II ependymomas may include the following:
Treatment of grade III anaplastic ependymoma may include the following:
Treatment of medulloblastomas may include the following:
Treatment of pineal parenchymal tumors may include the following:
Treatment of grade I meningiomas may include the following:
Treatment of grade II and III meningiomas and hemangiopericytoma s may include the following:
There is no standard treatment for germ cell tumors (germinoma, embryonal carcinoma, choriocarcinoma, and teratoma). Treatment depends on what the tumor cells look like under a microscope, the tumor markers, where the tumor is in the brain, and whether it can be removed by surgery.
Treatment of craniopharyngiomas may include the following:
Treatment of spinal cord tumors may include the following:
There is no standard treatment for recurrent central nervous system (CNS) tumors. Treatment depends on the patient's condition, the expected side effects of the treatment, where the tumor is in the CNS, and whether the tumor can be removed by surgery. Treatment may include the following:
Treatment of one to four tumors that have spread to the brain from another part of the body may include the following:
Treatment of tumors that have spread to the leptomeninges may include the following:
For more information from the National Cancer Institute about adult central nervous system tumors, see the following:
For general cancer information and other resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of adult central nervous system tumors. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
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PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Adult Central Nervous System Tumors Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/patient/adult-brain-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389458]
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Last Revised: 2020-05-07
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