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Symptoms & Diagnosis

Wilmot Cancer Institute treats all forms of brain and spine tumors in adults.

Because brain and spine tumors tend to be different in children, Golisano Children’s Hospital offers a complete team of specialists who provide advanced and compassionate care through the pediatric Comprehensive Brain Tumor Clinic.

Because Wilmot Cancer Institute is dedicated to treating adult brain and spine tumors, we see more cases than any other center in the region. That high level of experience leads to better results — our outcomes are on a par with the best published outcomes in the nation.

At Wilmot Cancer Institute, we provide the full spectrum of cancer care, from initial diagnosis and treatment to recovery and rehabilitation. We work in multidisciplinary teams. Multidisciplinary means that our providers include experts with a variety of specialties: surgeons, neuro-oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse practitioners, social workers, clinical researchers and others. They work together on your case to provide the most personalized care possible.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of brain and spine tumors differ in each person depending on where the tumor forms in the brain or spinal cord, its size and what the affected part of the brain controls. They can occur gradually and get worse over time, or they can come on suddenly.

Symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Problems with vision, hearing and speech
  • Loss of balance and trouble walking
  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior
  • Weakness


Getting an accurate diagnosis is essential to getting the best treatment. Diagnosing brain and spine tumors can include:

Medical history and physical examination: This first step includes a complete medical history and assessment of any symptoms such as headaches, seizures, blurred vision and balance problems.

Neurological examination: Through a series of questions and tests, the doctor will assess brain, spinal cord and nerve function by evaluating coordination, ability to walk normally and how well senses and reflexes work.

Imaging: Imaging tests are used to learn more about the location, type and extent of brain and spine tumors. Wilmot Cancer Institute offers state-of-the-art imaging technology such as PET scans, CT scans, and MRI for diagnosing brain and spine tumors. In addition, neuroradiologists — specialists in image interpretation for the diagnosis of brain and spine cancer — evaluate all of the imaging tests.

Biopsy: A biopsy involves removing cells or tissue for further examination by a pathologist. Wilmot Cancer Institute offers:

  • Stereotactic biopsies, which are often used when a tumor is in deep in the brain or in a hard-to-reach area.
  • Brain tumor cellsSurgical biopsies, which are used when imaging indicates that the tumor can be removed surgically. With a procedure called a craniotomy, the surgeon makes an opening in the skull in order to access the brain, take a sample of abnormal tissue for examination, and remove as much of the tumor as possible.
  • Awake brain mapping, which allows the surgeon test areas of the brain surrounding the tumor to be sure that speech and other functions are not affected by the planned surgery.

Pathology: At Wilmot, neuropathologists — pathologists who specialize in tumors of the brain and spine — will examine the tissue from a biopsy under a microscope to determine whether cancer is present. 

Wilmot is a national referral center for neuropathology, and our team reviews brain and spine tumor specimens sent to us from hospitals across the country.

Because all of these diagnostic tools are available at the University of Rochester Medical Center, patients do not have to visit multiple locations for diagnosis and treatment.

Staging typically occurs during diagnosis and measures how far cancer cells may have spread. However, there is no formal staging system for brain and spine tumors because, unlike other cancers, these tumors rarely spread to other parts of the body. They can spread to other parts of the nervous system and have a significant impact on essential functions.