Brain and Spine Tumors

How are brain and spine tumors diagnosed?

Pre-surgical MRI studies and the appearance of a tumor during surgery can be vital in suggesting the specific diagnosis. However, the diagnosis can only be confirmed by examination of the tissue within the tumor under a microscope. This system relies heavily on the ability of the pathologist to recognize cellular patterns and has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950s. An exciting new field in the study of oncology is isolating the genes that are active in these tumors, allowing classification of tumors based on more sophisticated tests.

Are all brain and spine tumors malignant?

No. There are many different types of tumors that occur in either the spine or brain.
Benign brain tumors do not contain cancer cells. When they are removed, they usually do not grow back. The border or edge of a benign brain tumor can be clearly seen and cells from benign brain tumors do not invade surrounding tissues or spread to other parts of the body, though if they grow large enough, they can sometimes become life threatening.
Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells and are generally more serious and often life threatening. They are likely to grow rapidly and to invade surrounding healthy brain tissue. Very rarely, cancer cells may break away from a malignant brain tumor and spread to other parts of the brain, spinal cord or even to other parts of the body. When this happens it is called metastasis.
There are many different types of spinal tumors as well. One category is related to tumors that involve the spinal bones and a second broad category involves tumors of the spinal cord and its coverings. Many are not aggressive in their growth potential, but still cause problems because of their mass and location. Many spinal tumors are easily treated with surgical resection alone and require no additional therapy. A metastatic tumor that has spread to the spine is often a sign of cancer and can be difficult to remove surgically. Metastatic tumors nearly always require radiation therapy in addition to surgical removal.

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