A brain tumor is a collection of abnormal cells in the brain. Normal cells in the body develop, age, die, and are replaced by new cells; tumors disrupt that cycle by causing cells to continue to grow but not die. A primary brain tumor originates in the brain. A secondary brain tumor, also called a metastatic brain tumor, occurs when cancer cells spread to the brain from other organs, most commonly from the lung or the breast. Primary brain tumors can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). All secondary brain tumors are malignant.
Benign brain tumors
Benign brain tumors are formed from a group of cells, usually from nerve tissue or blood vessels, which develop into a mass but do not have the characteristics of a cancer. They do not contain cancer cells, and most have clear borders, meaning they do not invade surrounding tissue. These tumors typically grow slowly, and they rarely become cancerous. Most can be removed and usually do not return. Even non-cancerous tumors can be dangerous, though, since they can compress brain tissue, restrict blood flow, and damage healthy brain cells.
Depending on the size and location of a benign brain tumor, symptoms may be similar to a malignant tumor and can include headaches, vision, hearing or balance problems, numbness, facial paralysis, seizures, or memory loss. Benign tumors are almost always treatable. Treatments include surgery and radiation, similar to treatments for cancerous brain tumors, but chemotherapy rarely is used.
Malignant brain tumors
A malignant brain tumor is a specific type of mass or growth of abnormal cells in the brain. Most malignant brain tumors are secondary, meaning they spread to the nervous system from cancers in other areas in the body, such as the breast, lung, skin, or blood. Secondary brain tumors are three to five times more common than primary brain tumors. Malignant primary brain tumors originate in the brain and aggressively invade surrounding tissue. About 80 percent of malignant primary brain tumors are gliomas, which are thought to arise from the glial cells in the brain. Gliomas can be given different grades, namely II, III, or IV, with grade IV being the most aggressive.
Glioblastoma (GBM), previously referred to as glioblastoma multiforme, is an aggressive tumor that can quickly spread throughout the brain. GBMs typically do not spread outside of the nervous system. Most patients with a GBM will have neuro-imaging studies, such as a head CT and a brain MRI. These imaging studies may indicate a primary brain tumor, but a definitive diagnosis is not made until surgery is performed and the tumor tissue is examined by a neuro-pathologist. The standard treatment for a GBM is surgery, followed by simultaneous radiation and an oral chemotherapy. After the radiation and chemotherapy, patients then complete additional chemotherapy with the same oral drug.
UAB Medicine patients benefit from having a leader in brain tumor treatment right in their own backyard. UAB Medicine Neuro-Oncology is recognized as one of the top programs of its kind in the nation, and we have the state’s only Comprehensive Cancer Center, as designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). This means that our patients have access to the most advanced cancer treatments and research studies available.
- We provide the latest research-based care, including immunotherapy, gene therapies, and cancer stem cell-targeted therapies.
- Care is delivered by a team of nationally and internationally recognized specialists, who work together to design the most effective treatment plans.
- The director of our program wrote the national guidelines for treating cancers of the central nervous system, including brain tumors.
- As a regional referral center, UAB Medicine offers patients access to groundbreaking surgical techniques, new chemotherapies and radiation therapies, and clinical trials of the newest and most advanced treatments.
- We help support our patients through this difficult time with compassionate care that includes dedicated social workers, patient and caregiver support groups, and a Caregiver Distress Program.
For more than 30 years, the UAB Neuro-Oncology Program has provided compassionate, complete care for patients with primary brain and spinal cord tumors, nervous system metastases, and neurologic complications of cancer. This team includes a variety of dedicated professionals who help guide patients through diagnosis and all stages of treatment, including:
- Radiation oncologists
- Advanced practice providers (APPs)
- Patient care coordinators
- Rehabilitation specialists
- Social workers
- Palliative care physicians
UAB Medicine provides specialized surgical care for patients with brain tumors, including:
- Image-guided surgery for benign and malignant brain tumors, which allows for safe and complete removal of tumor material without damaging normal brain tissue.
- Awake surgeries for malignant brain tumors in certain areas of the brain, so that as much of the tumor as possible can be removed in the functionally important brain areas; this also minimizes the risks of post-operative complications.
- Innovative surgical clinical trials that allow neurosurgeons to directly target remaining tumor cells during surgery.
- Plans to begin offering fluorescence-guided surgery for malignant brain tumors, which causes tumor cells to “shine” during surgery and gives surgeons the best chance of removing the maximum number of cancer cells.
Common Disorders Treated by UAB Neuro-Oncology
Primary nervous system tumors:
- Germ cell tumors
- Primary central nervous system lymphoma
- Nerve sheath tumors (schwannoma, neurofibroma)
- Pituitary region tumors (pituitary adenoma, craniopharyngioma)
Secondary nervous system tumors (metastases):
- Metastases to the brain and/or spinal cord
- Secondary central nervous system lymphoma
- Meningeal metastases (meningeal carcinomatosis)
- Epidural metastases and spinal cord compression
Neurologic complications of cancer, including:
- Brain tumor-related seizures
- Paraneoplastic syndromes
- Complications of cancer therapy, such as chemotherapy-related neuropathies and immunotherapy-related complications
UAB is an active participant in research and clinical trials for the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumors (benign). We encourage you to speak to your physician about research and clinical trial options and browse the link below for more information.View Clinical Trials
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