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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. Wilmot Cancer Institute is dedicated to treating adult brain and spine tumors and sees 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.

Overview of Brain and Spine Tumors

Some brain and spine tumors are cancer (malignant), and some of them are not cancer (benign).

  • Benign tumors rarely grow into nearby tissues or spread to other parts of the body, but they can still require treatment because they can press on nearby parts of the brain, causing problems with the control of movement, speech, vision or other vital functions.
  • Like other forms of cancer, malignant tumors can spread through brain tissue and are likely to grow quickly.

Brain tumors can also be:

Primary: These are tumors that originate in the brain and stay in the brain.

Metastatic: These are tumors that start in other parts of the body — such as the lungs, breasts, colon and kidneys — and spread to the brain. Metastatic brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors.

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. These symptoms may not mean you have a brain tumor, but could indicate other health issues. Call us if you have any of the below symptoms:

  • Problems with vision, hearing, speech and sense of smell
  • Loss of balance or coordination and trouble walking
  • Changes in feeling hot and cold temperatures and soft and sharp objects
  • Changing in breathing rates and pulse

Diagnosis

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.

Risk Factors

The cause of most adult brain and spine tumors is unknown, but there are a few conditions that may increase the risk of some types of brain tumors:

  • Exposure to vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics, may increase the risk of glioma.
  • Immune system disorders can increase the risk of developing lymphoma of the central nervous system (CNS lymphomas).
  • X-Ray or radiation exposure to the head.
  • Immune system disorders or use of drugs that suppress the immune system.
  • Certain genetic syndromes such as neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) or 2 (NF2); von Hippel-Lindau disease; tuberous sclerosis; Li-Fraumeni syndrome; Turcot syndrome type 1 or 2; and nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome.

Prevention

Because the causes of adult brain and spine tumors are not fully understood, there is no known way to protect against these tumors. Despite the common phenomenon, here is no known evidence that the use of cell phones is linked to brain tumors.

Brain and Spine Tumor Types

There are many different types of brain and spine tumors, and they include:

  • Acoustic neuroma
  • Anaplastic astrocytoma
  • Brain metastases
  • Brain stem glioma
  • Chordoma
  • CNS lymphoma
  • Craniopharyngioma
  • Ependymoma
  • Glioblastoma
  • Gliomatosis cerebri
  • Low grade glioma
  • Medulloblastoma
  • Meningioma
  • Oligodendroglioma
  • Pilocytic astrocytoma
  • Pineal tumor
  • Pituitary adenoma
  • Primitive neuroectodermal tumor (PNET)