Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults: Symptoms, Signs, Causes, Treatment Options, and Life Expectancy

Learn about the different types of benign brain tumors and their symptoms.

Types of Benign (Non-Cancerous) Brain Tumors

Most common types of benign brain tumors

The majority of benign brain tumors arise from brain or brain-associated tissue (for example, nerve tissue, blood vessels). The following is a list of the most frequently diagnosed benign brain tumors:

  • meningioma - tumor arising from the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord; this accounts for about 20% of brain tumors
  • schwannoma (also termed acoustic neuroma) - tumor in the 8th cranial nerve arising from Schwann cells (insulating cells of the nervous system); this accounts for about 9% of all brain tumors
  • pituitary adenomas - pituitary gland tumor; this accounts for about 8% of brain tumors
  • hemangioblastomasa - vascular tissue mass, sometimes cystic; this accounts for about 2% of brain tumors
  • craniopharyngioma - a cystic tumor from cell remnants of Rathke's pouch (nasopharynx), usually occurring in children; this accounts for about 1%-3% of brain tumors
  • choroid plexus papilloma - choroid plexus tissue (the tissue responsible for the production of cerebrospinal fluid or CSF) mass that blocks cerebrospinal fluid flow, usually in children; this accounts for less than 1% of brain tumors

Brain and spinal cord tumor in adults definition and facts*

*Adult brain tumor facts medical author: Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD

  • The brain is a soft mass of tissue that has three major parts, the cerebrum, cerebellum and the brain stem, all of which are effectively surrounded and protected by the bones of the skull; the brain is the tissue that controls people's voluntary and involuntary actions (that is, bodily functions, thoughts, and sensations).
  • Cancer is the unregulated growth of abnormal cells in the body (cancer cells are also termed malignant cells).
  • Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells; benign brain tumors do not contain cancer cells but do contain abnormally growing and dividing cells that do not metastasize (spread to other organs) but may still cause problems, often because of their size and are regulated to grow in a specific area.
  • Primary brain tumors are composed of abnormal types of brain cells with unregulated growth; the most common type is termed gliomas that arise from brain glial cells, but there are many other types (for example, astrocytomas, ependymomas, medulloblastomas and oligodendrogliomas).
  • Secondary brain tumors are metastatic tumors comprised of cells from other organs where cancers have started and then spread through the bloodstream to the brain tissue.
  • Symptoms of adult brain tumors, many of which are non-specific and occur in other diseases, may include headaches, nausea, vomiting, speech, hearing or vision changes, memory problems, personality changes and paresthesias (an abnormal sensation of the skin such as numbness, tingling, prickling, burning, or creeping on the skin that has no objective cause), and seizures.
  • Brain tumors are diagnosed preliminarily by many methods including detailed physical exam, CT and/or MRI exams, angiograms, and X-rays; definitive diagnosis is by removing tissue from the tumor (tumor biopsy) and examining the cells microscopically.
  • The grade of tumor is based on how abnormal the cancer cells look microscopically and how fast the cells grow and spread. Grade are from I to IV, with grade IV the most aggressive cancer.
  • Types of adult brain cancers include:
    • Brain stem gliomas
    • Pineal astrocytic tumor
    • Pilocytic astrocytoma
    • Diffuse astrocytoma
    • Anaplastic astrocytoma
    • Glioblastoma
    • Oligodendroglial tumors
    • Mixed gliomas
    • Ependymal tumors
    • Medulloblastoma
    • Pineal parenchymal tumors
    • Meningeal tumors
    • Germ cell tumor
    • Craniopharyngioma
  • Recurrent adult brain tumor is a tumor that has recurred or come back after treatment.
  • Metastatic or secondary brain tumors that commonly spread to the brain are lung, breast, unknown primary site, melanoma, and colon cancers.
  • You and your medical treatment team (oncologists, neurosurgeons, second opinions, etc.) will discuss your treatment options based upon the type and grade of the tumor, your age, and any existing health problems. Treatment options may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, or a combination of these therapies. However, in some case no medical treatment is necessary. Clinical trials offer other types and/or new methods that may help some patients.
  • Treatment choices for a brain tumor depends on joint decisions made by the patient and the patient's physician team (team members may include oncologists, neurosurgeons, and others the patient may choose, including other doctors who may give a second opinion); treatment methods are based on the individual's disease and may consist of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, combinations of these methods or no treatment.
  • Side effects of treatments are common and numerous, but vary from patient to patient depending on the disease, method(s) used and the effectiveness of medications and other methods to reduce them; some of the most common side effects are weakness, nausea, edema, skin changes and hair loss but may include more serious problems such as infections, seizures, disabilities such as speech problems, mental changes and occasionally, death.
  • Rehabilitation is frequently included in the treatment plan; specialists like physical, occupational and speech therapists can help the patient improve.
  • Follow-up appointments are part of the treatment plan for brain tumors to catch any recurrent disease and to help with rehabilitation treatments.
  • Support groups are available to patients with brain tumors and to patients who have and are undergoing treatments, for example, the American Cancer Society, American Brain Tumor Society.

What functions do the different parts of the brain control?

The brain controls many important body functions.

The brain has three major parts:

  • The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It is at the top of the head. The cerebrum controls thinking, learning, problem solving, emotions, speech, reading, writing, and voluntary movement.
  • The cerebellum is in the lower back of the brain (near the middle of the back of the head). It controls movement, balance, and posture.
  • The brain stem connects the brain to the spinal cord. It is in the lowest part of the brain (just above the back of the neck). The brain stem controls breathing, heart rate, and the nerves and muscles used to see, hear, walk, talk, and eat.

The spinal cord connects the brain to nerves in most parts of the body.

The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that runs from the brain stem down the center of the back. It is covered by three thin layers of tissue called membranes. These membranes are surrounded by the vertebrae (back bones). Spinal cord nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body, such as a message from the brain to cause muscles to move or a message from the skin to the brain to feel touch.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/11/2017

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