Brain and Spine Cancer

Offering expertise and the latest treatment options for brain and spine cancers.

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What you need to know about brain and spine cancers

Tumors in the brain or spinal cord are cells that have grown out of control. The tumors in the brain or spine can be cancer (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). The risk that a person will develop a malignant brain or spinal tumor during their life is rare — less than 1 percent. The risk is slightly higher for men (1 in 143) then women (1 in 185). Survival rates vary widely depending on the type of tumor and other factors.

Non-cancerous (benign) tumors in the brain and spine can still be dangerous because they can grow in parts of your brain and spine. However, they tend to not grow very fast or spread. Once removed, they don’t usually come back.

There are two types of malignant tumors: primary, and secondary or metastatic brain tumors.

Primary brain tumors

Primary tumors are tumors that begin in the brain or spinal cord and are named by the type of brain tissue they start in. The most common type of primary brain tumor is a glioma. This type starts in the supportive (glial) tissue of the brain. Some types of gliomas include:

  • Astrocytoma. This is the most common type of glioma. It starts in small star-shaped cells called astrocytes. In adults, an astrocytoma usually grows in the cerebrum. In children, they can grow in the cerebellum, cerebrum, or brain stem. Most astrocytomas spread into nearby normal brain tissue and are hard to cure with surgery. Glioblastoma is a type of astrocytoma that tends to grow very quickly. 
  • Brain stem glioma.  This kind of glioma starts in the brain stem. It's more common in children than in adults. Because the brain stem controls many important functions, such as breathing and heart rate, this kind of tumor usually can’t be removed by surgery.
  • Ependymoma. This kind of tumor starts in cells that line the fluid-filled spaces within the brain. These spaces are called ventricles. The tumor doesn’t often grow into nearby brain tissue. This means in some cases it can be cured with surgery.
  • Oligodendroglioma. This kind of tumor starts in cells that make myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds nerves. Like an astrocytoma, this tumor tends to spread into nearby brain tissue and is often hard to cure with surgery. 
  • Optic nerve glioma. This rare glioma is most common in children. It's linked to a syndrome called NF1 (neurofibromatosis type 1). The tumor grows in or around the nerve that sends messages from the eyes to the brain. This can cause vision changes. It can also cause hormone changes because it's close to the pituitary gland. 

Other types of primary tumors include:

  • Embryonal tumor or primitive neuroectodermal tumor (PNET). This kind of tumor grows more often in young children. It can start anywhere in the brain in early forms of nerve cells. The most common type is medulloblastoma. It starts in the cerebellum. These tumors tend to grow and spread quickly. 
  • Tumor of the pineal gland.  This rare tumor starts in the pineal gland. This is a tiny organ near the center of the brain. The tumor can be fast-growing, called pineoblastoma. It's most common in children and linked with an inherited change in the RB1 (retinoblastoma) gene.
  • Pituitary tumor. This kind of tumor starts in the pituitary gland at the base of the brain. It's almost never cancer. Still, it can cause serious symptoms because of its location and because it may make too many hormones. 
  • Craniopharyngioma. This kind of tumor starts near the pituitary gland. It usually occurs in children and is often slow growing. But it can cause symptoms if it presses on the pituitary gland or on nearby nerves. 
  • Schwannoma. This kind of tumor starts in myelin-making cells that surround certain nerves. These are called Schwann cells. The tumor can start in the vestibular nerve in the inner ear that helps with balance. If it grows there, the tumor is called a vestibular schwannoma or an acoustic neuroma. This type of tumor is usually not cancer.
  • Meningioma. This kind of tumor starts in the outer linings of the brain (meninges). It's most common in adults. Many meningiomas can be removed with surgery, but some may grow back.  
  • Primary central nervous system lymphoma. This is an aggressive, rare type of tumor that starts in lymphocytes. This is a type of immune cell. The tumor is common in people with a disease of the immune system, such as AIDS. But new HIV treatments have made it less common.

Secondary or metastatic brain tumors

These are tumors that begin in another body part and spread to the brain or spinal cord. In adults, secondary brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors. Cancer in the brain that has spread from another part of the body is not brain cancer. It's still the same type of cancer as where it started.

Brain and spine cancer specialists

Legacy Cancer Institute, located in Portland, OR, ranks among the nation’s best cancer programs. We have a team of cancer specialists who work together to diagnose and develop a personalized treatment plan for you. Find the right provider and treatment close to home.

Legacy Cancer Institute is accredited as an integrated network cancer program by the American College of surgeons Commission on Cancer (CoC). Learn more about our quality cancer care.

Understanding your brain and spine cancer diagnosis 

Being told you have brain or spine cancer can be scary and you may have a lot of questions. Your healthcare team at Legacy is here to help. After a diagnosis of brain or spinal tumor, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand how far your cancer may have spread. At this point, you’ve likely had a physical exam and reviewed your health history with your provider. You may have also had a biopsy to confirm your diagnosis. 

Following a diagnosis of spinal or brain cancer, you may have more tests to help your doctor understand your cancer stage. 

Cancer staging involves developing where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and if it is affecting other parts of your body. Knowing the stage allows you and your doctor to develop your personalized treatment plan. 

Some tests your doctor may now recommend include:

  • CT scan, MRI or positron emission tomography (PET): Imaging technology to look inside the body
  • Tumor marker test. Sampling blood, urine or tumor tissue to look for certain substances that may indicate cancer 
  • Gene test. Testing blood, urine or tumor tissue to look for changes in a chromosome linked to a type of brain tumor

Brain and spine cancer treatment options

There are several ways to treat brain or spinal cord cancer depending on the type and location of the tumor. Options may include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. People often receive a combination of treatments. Legacy Cancer Institute offers specific expertise in treating brain cancer. Learn more about your treatment options.

Care for children

Brain and spinal cord cancers are the second most common type of childhood cancers. Medical advances mean more children with cancer are saved each year. Our program at Randall Children's Hospital at Legacy Emanuel offers help for these complex cases. Learn more about treatment of childhood cancers.

More support

You are not alone. Legacy offers support throughout your cancer journey, as well as care for your emotional, social and spiritual needs.

Nurse navigators
Legacy Cancer Healing Center 
Support groups and classes
Cancer rehabilitation 
Survivorship services