Brain and spine tumours

Brain and spine tumours, also known as central nervous system (CNS) tumours, are abnormal growths of tissue in the brain and spine. This type of cancer occurs when the growth of cells gets out of control, developing a lump known as a tumour.

The brain and central nervous system

The brain is the control centre of the body: responsible for thoughts, feelings, actions and various physiological functions such as temperature control. Different areas of the brain control different parts of the body, as well as thoughts, memories and feelings. The brain makes up part of the central nervous system, along with the spinal cord.

Types of brain tumours

There are more than 200 different types of brain tumours. They are often named after the type of cell or the region of the brain where they begin. Most brain tumours start in the glial cells that bind the nerve cells of the brain together. These are tumours are called ‘gliomas’. There are a number of different sub-types of gliomas.

The ones that are most common in young people are astrocytomas and ependymomas. Medulloblastomas are tumours that develop in the cerebellum at the back of the brain but may spread to other parts of the brain and, occasionally to other parts of the body.

There are also a number of rarer types of brain tumours. Talk to your specialist for more information about your particular diagnosis.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms of a central nervous system tumour may be headaches and sickness that are usually worse in the morning. Depending on where the tumour is located, other symptoms could include loss of vision or hearing, irritability, changes in behaviour and fits, unsteadiness when walking, weakness in your arms or legs, and difficulty going to the toilet.

How are they diagnosed?

Central nervous system tumours are diagnosed using a number of tests. Specialists use MRI scans and CT scans to let them look at the brain in detail and identify where the tumour is located. They will do an eye examination for any increased pressure in the brain, take blood tests, and possibly also test hearing and reflexes.

Doing these tests and getting the results may take some time, but it is important for your specialist so that they can determine the best form of treatment.

How are they treated?

Your treatment plan will depend on the type of tumour you have, and its size and location.

Surgery is the most common treatment for central nervous system tumours. The surgeons will aim to remove the tumour, or as much of it as possible. However, sometimes surgery is not a treatment option because the tumour has no clear edges and is located next to or within a delicate part of the brain.

Radiotherapy may be used in addition to surgery if it has not been possible to remove the entire tumour surgically, or if surgery is not possible because of the location of the tumour. Radiotherapy will also usually be given to those affected by high-grade tumours, whether or not these have been removed by surgery. Your specialist may also recommend a specialised form of radiotherapy called proton beam therapy.

Chemotherapy can also be used, especially when treating high-grade gliomas and medulloblastoma. Steroids are given to reduce the swelling around brain tumours. They don’t treat the tumour itself but help relieve some of the symptoms that the tumour causes.

In some situations the genetic make up of the tumour may be examined to see if ‘targeted’ treatments can be offered for some rare brain tumours. This is a current area of investigation and your medical team will discuss the options available for treatment with you.

After treatment

Any long-term side effects following treatment will depend on where the cancer was originally located, the treatment and a number of other factors.

Some side effects – like shaking or fits, weakness on one side or in one part of the body, or difficulty in walking, speaking or understanding – may be overcome through therapy. Talk to your specialist about the options available to you.