About Brain Cancer

The central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spine, is the body’s command center. Even when you’re asleep, your brain is at work. When you’re awake, it sends out and receives a constant stream of messages through other branches of the nervous system. Those messages regulate your breathing, heart rate, and other vital functions; enable you to see, hear, feel, walk, and talk; make it possible for you to acquire, organize, and remember new knowledge, to feel anger and fear and love, to dream and imagine. Those functions are threatened when a tumor grows in the brain.

The Brain Has Three Main Parts:

  • The cerebrum – largest part of the brain; controls thinking, learning, problem-solving, emotions, speech and voluntary movement
  • The cerebellum – controls movement balance and posture
  • The brain stem – connects the brain to the spinal cord; controls breathing, heart rate, nerves and muscles used to see, hear, walk, talk and eat

Terms You Should Know: 

  • Brain tumor refers to an abnormal growth in the brain. A tumor is either cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). Most non-cancerous brain tumors and conditions are curable.
    • A malignant brain tumor (also called brain cancer) contains cancer cells, grows rapidly, invading healthy brain tissue nearby, and may be life-threatening. Many malignant tumors are also treatable, and improvements in therapy are allowing patients to live longer and to preserve their quality of life.
    • A benign brain tumor does not contain cancer cells; rarely invades nearby tissue or spreads to other parts of the body; and usually does not grow back after it is removed. However, even a benign brain tumor can press on sensitive areas of the brain and cause life-threatening health problems. Some benign tumors can become malignant in time.

Dr. Fenstermaker explains the difference between metastatic brain tumors and primary brain tumors.

  • Primary tumors are tumors that begin in the brain.
  • A secondary, or metastatic brain tumor begins in another part of the body and spreads to the brain. Primary and metastatic brain tumors are usually treated differently.

Brain tumors are diagnosed in more than 200,000 Americans each year; 40,000 of those cases involve primary brain tumors. The vast majority of brain tumors are secondary tumors, which have metastasized, or spread, from primary tumors elsewhere in the body. Between 10-30 percent of all adult cancer patients will develop metastatic tumors in the brain. Cancers of the breast, lung, colon, kidney and skin (melanoma) are most likely to spread to the brain.

There are more than 120 types of primary brain tumors and abnormalities, and Roswell Park has the experts and resources to treat them. Some of these tumors and related conditions include:

  • Acoustic Neuroma: A slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. It is not cancerous, but if left untreated, can grow and damage vital nerves.
  • Adenoma: A benign tumor of the pituitary gland. They very rarely become cancerous (adenocarcinomas).
  • Arteriovenous Malformation: Abnormal connections between the veins and arteries creating a tangle of blood vessels that can bleed in the brain; not a tumor.
  • Astrocytoma: A tumor originating from astrocytes, the star-shaped cells in the cerebrum, cerebellum or brainstem. Astrocytomas do not usually spread outside the brain or affect other organs. Astrocytomas are the most common type of glioma. There are a number of different types and grades of astrocytoma.
  • Chordoma: A locally invasive tumor that forms at the base of the skull or in the sacrum of the spine. A related cancerous tumor of the skull base is called chondrosarcoma. These tumors are generally slow-growing but can recur locally after treatment.
  • Choroid Plexus Tumors: Usually benign, these tumors arise from the choroid plexus, which lines the ventricles of the brain and produces the cerebrospinal fluid. These occur primarily in children.
  • Craniopharyngioma: A benign tumor arising from small nests of cells near the pituitary stalk.
  • Ependymoma: A tumor that originates in the ependymal cells that line the brain passageways where cerebrospinal fluid is produced and circulated.
  • Glioblastoma multiforme: A malignant glioma also also called grade IV astrocytoma
  • Gliomas: A general term used to identify any tumor that arises from the supportive (gluey) tissue of the brain. The three main types of gliomas are: astrocytoma, oligodendroma, and ependymoma.
  • Hemangioblastoma: A rare benign tumor of the cerebellum (balance control region) composed of many small blood vessels and often a fluid-filled cyst.
  • Hydrocephalus: A buildup of cerebrospinal fluid due to blockage of normal flow patterns in the brain. Often treated either by a shunt or a procedure called endoscopic third ventriculostomy (ETV).
  • Lipoma: A rare genetic brain condition, that develops in the corpus callosum — a wide, flat bundle of neural fibers beneath the cortex of the brain.
  • Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma (PCNSL): Also known as microglioma and primary brain lymphoma. This condition occurs mostly in elderly persons or in younger people with severely compromised or weakened immune systems (e.g., AIDS patients).
  • Medulloblastoma: A fast-growing cancer that arises from emybryonal or immature cells at the earliest stage of their development. Most medulloblastomas occur in children but about one-third are diagnosed in adults between the ages of 20-44.
  • Meningioma: A set of tumors originating in the meninges, the membranous layers surrounding the central nervous system. Meningiomas, which are usually benign, represent about one-third of all primary brain tumors.
  • Metastatic Brain Tumors: A secondary brain tumor that begins as cancer in another part of the body. Some of the cancer cells may be carried to the brain through the bloodstream, or may spread from nearby tissue. The site where cancer cells originate is referred to as the primary cancer.  
  • Neurofibroma: A benign nerve sheath tumor in the peripheral nervous system. Usually found in persons with neurofibromatosis type I, a genetic disorder.
  • Neuronal and Mixed Neuronal-Glial Tumors: Rare, benign tumors that originate in ganglion-type nerve cells. These tumors are commonly located in the temporal lobe of the cerebral hemispheres and around the third ventricle.
  • Oligoastrocytoma: A subset of glioma, often called a mixed glioma, usually composed of both astrocytoma- and oligodendroglioma-like cells
  • Oligodendroglioma: A tumor that arises from oligodendrocytes, one of the types of cells that make up the supportive, or glial, tissue of the brain.
  • Pineal Tumors: Tumor that forms in or around the pineal gland near the center of the brain. There are a number of different types, all of which are rare.
  • Pituitary Tumors: Almost all pituitary tumors are benign (non-cancerous) glandular tumors called pituitary adenomas. While these tumors are considered benign because they don't spread to other parts of the body, they can still cause significant health problems because of their location near the brain and because many of them produce an excess of one or more hormones. Pituitary cancers (called pituitary carcinomas) are very rare.
  • Primitive Neuroectodermal Embriogenic Tumor (PNET): Neural crest tumor usually occurring in children and young adults under 25 years of age.
  • Schwannoma: A slow-growing, benign tumor of a cranial nerve. The most common location of these tumors is the 8th cranial nerve. Such tumors are known as acoustic neuromas or vestibular schwannomas. Common symptoms are one-sided hearing loss and buzzing or ringing in the affected ear.
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia (TN): A nerve disorder that causes a stabbing or electric-shock-like pain in one side of the forehead, cheek or jaw. TN is rarely caused by a tumor. Most often it is due to a blood vessel pressing on the 5th cranial (trigeminal) nerve.