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Brain Tumor - Introduction

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about this disease and the parts of the body it may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Brain Tumors. To see other pages, use the menu. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

The possibility of being diagnosed with a brain tumor is a shocking and life-changing event. If your doctor suspects a brain tumor, it is important to seek out doctors specialized in diagnosing and treating brain tumors. The brain is a complex and vital organ, and treatment often causes life-long changes.

About the brain and central nervous system

The brain and spinal column make up the central nervous system (CNS), where all vital functions are controlled. These functions include thought, speech, and body movements. This means that when a tumor grows in the CNS, it can affect a person's thought processes, the way they talk, or movements.

This section describes primary brain tumors, which are those that start in the brain. A primary brain tumor is described as low grade or high grade. A low-grade tumor generally grows slowly, but can turn into a high-grade tumor. A high-grade tumor is more likely to grow faster.

In adults, secondary brain tumors, also called brain metastases, are much more common than primary tumors. A secondary brain tumor is a cancerous tumor that started in another part of the body, such as the breast, lung, or colon, and then spread to the brain. Learn more about cancer that started elsewhere in the body and spread to the brain by reading about that specific type of cancer.

Anatomy of the brain

The brain is made up of 4 main parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, the brain stem, and the meninges.

  • The cerebrum. This is the largest part of the brain. It contains 2 cerebral hemispheres on either side of the brain that each control the opposite side of the body. It is divided into 4 lobes where specific functions occur:
    • The frontal lobe controls reasoning, emotions, problem-solving, expressive speech, and movement

    • The parietal lobe controls the sensations of touch, such as pressure, pain, and temperature. It also controls parts of speech, visual-spatial orientation, and calculation

    • The temporal lobe controls memory, special senses such as hearing, and the ability to understand spoken or written words

    • The occipital lobe controls vision

  • The cerebellum. The cerebellum is located at the back part of the brain below the cerebrum. It is responsible for coordination and balance and controls functions on the same side of the body.

  • The brain stem. This is the portion of the brain that connects to the spinal cord and the cerebellum. It controls involuntary functions essential for life, such as the beating of the heart and breathing. Messages for the functions controlled by the cerebrum and cerebellum travel through the brain stem to the body.

  • The meninges. These are the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. There are 3 meningeal layers, called the dura mater, arachnoid, and pia mater. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is made near the center of the brain, in the lateral ventricles. CSF circulates around the brain and spinal cord between the arachnoid and pia layers.

View illustrations of the anatomy of the brain.

Types of brain tumors

There are many types of primary brain tumors. Some cannot be assigned an exact type because the tumor’s location makes it too difficult to remove. For a complete list of the types of brain tumors and how often they are diagnosed, please refer to the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States.

This section’s coverage is divided into glioma and non-glioma types of tumors in adults. Learn about brain tumors in children.


As a group, a glioma is one of the most common types of brain tumor. A glioma is a tumor that grows from a glial cell. A glial cell is a supportive cell in the brain. The main types of supportive cells in the brain include astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and ependymal cells. Gliomas may be considered astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, or ependymomas. Gliomas are assigned a grade, which is an indication of how aggressive a tumor is likely to be. A higher grade is usually more aggressive and more likely to grow quickly. However, doctors are moving toward using tumor genetics to better classify gliomas. This is discussed later in this guide.

Currently, the types of gliomas include:

  • Astrocytoma.  Astrocytoma is the most common type of glioma and begins in cells called astrocytes in the cerebrum or cerebellum. There are 4 grades of astrocytoma.

    • Grade I or pilocytic astrocytoma is a slow-growing tumor that is most often benign and rarely spreads into nearby tissue. It is more common in children.

    • Grade II or low-grade diffuse astrocytoma is a slow-growing tumor that can often spread into nearby tissue and can become a higher grade.

    • Grade III or anaplastic astrocytoma is a cancerous tumor that can quickly grow and spread to nearby tissues.

    • Grade IV or glioblastoma is a very aggressive form of astrocytoma.

  • Oligodendroglioma. Oligodendroglioma is a tumor that develops from cells called oligodendrocytes. These cells are responsible for making myelin. Myelin surrounds the nerves and is rich in protein and fatty substances called lipids. They are subclassified as either oligodendroglioma, which is considered low grade, or anaplastic oligodendroglioma.

  • Ependymoma. Ependymoma commonly begins in the passageways in the brain where CSF is made and stored, called the ependymal. In adults, they occur more often in the spine and tend to be of the myxopapillary subtype. Learn about ependymoma in children.

  • Brain stem glioma. A brain stem glioma begins in the glial cells in the brain stem. Learn about brain stem glioma in children.

Non-glioma tumors

The following section covers non-glioma tumors. These are tumors that arise from cells in the brain that are not glial or supportive tissue. Types of non-glioma tumors include:

  • Meningioma. Meningioma is the most common primary brain tumor. It begins in the meninges and is most often noncancerous. Meningioma can cause serious symptoms if it grows and presses on the brain or spinal cord or grows into the brain tissue. Learn more about meningioma.

  • Pineal gland and pituitary gland tumors. These are tumors that start in the pineal gland and pituitary gland.

  • Primary CNS lymphoma. This is a form of lymphoma. Lymphoma is a cancer that begins in the lymphatic system. Primary CNS lymphoma starts in the brain and can spread to the spinal fluid and eyes.

  • Medulloblastoma. Medulloblastoma is thought to start from a specific type of cell in the cerebellum. These cells are called cerebellar granule progenitor cells. It is most common in children and is usually cancerous, often spreading throughout the CNS. Similar tumors can start in other parts of the brain and are called primitive neuroectodermal tumors (PNET). Learn about medulloblastoma in children.

  • Craniopharyngioma. Craniopharyngioma is a benign tumor that begins near the pituitary gland located near the base of the brain. These tumors are rare. Learn about craniopharyngioma in children.

  • Schwannoma. Schwannoma is a rare tumor that begins in the nerve sheath, or the lining of the nerves. It may often occur in the vestibular nerve, which is a nerve in the inner ear that helps control balance. It is typically noncancerous.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Fact Sheet: Read a 1-page fact sheet that offers an introduction to brain tumors. This fact sheet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert in this type of tumor that provides basic information and areas of research.

The next section in this guide is Medical Illustrations. It offers drawings of body parts often affected by this disease. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide. 

Brain Tumor - Statistics

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find information about how many people are diagnosed with a brain tumor each year. You will also learn some general information on surviving the disease. Remember, survival rates depend on several factors. To see other pages, use the menu.

A primary brain or spinal cord tumor is a tumor that starts in the brain or spinal cord. This year, an estimated 23,770 adults (13,350 men and 10,420 women) in the United States will be diagnosed with primary cancerous tumors of the brain and spinal cord this year.

Also, more than 4,000 children and teens will be diagnosed with a brain or central nervous system tumor this year. This rest of this guide deals with adult primary brain tumors. Learn about brain tumors in children.

In addition to primary brain tumors, there are also secondary brain tumors or brain metastases. This is when the tumor started somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain. The most common cancers that spread to the brain are bladder, breast, kidney, and lung cancers, leukemia, lymphoma, and melanoma. This guide covers primary adult brain tumors only.

It is estimated that 16,050 adults (9,440 men and 6,610 women) will die from primary cancerous brain and CNS tumors this year.

The 5-year survival rate tells you what percent of people live at least 5 years after the tumor is found. Percent means how many out of 100. The 5-year survival rate for people with brain or central nervous system tumors varies widely and depends on several factors, including the type of brain or spinal cord tumor. Talk with your doctor about what to expect with your diagnosis.

It is important to remember that statistics on how many people survive this type of tumor are an estimate. The estimate comes from data based on thousands of people with this tumor in the United States each year. So, your own risk may be different. Doctors cannot say for sure how long anyone will live with a brain or spinal cord tumor. Also, experts measure the survival statistics every 5 years. This means that the estimate may not show the results of better diagnosis or treatment available for less than 5 years. Learn more about understanding statistics.

Statistics adapted from the American Brain Tumor Association; the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States; the National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Health; and the American Cancer Society's publication, Cancer Facts & Figures 2016.

The next section in this guide is Risk Factors. It explains what factors may increase the chance of developing this disease. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - Risk Factors

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about the factors that increase the chance of developing a brain tumor. To see other pages, use the menu.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing a brain tumor. Although risk factors often influence the development of a brain tumor, most do not directly cause a brain tumor. Some people with several risk factors never develop a brain tumor, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices. At this time, there are no known ways to prevent a brain tumor.

Most of the time, the cause of a brain tumor is unknown, but the following factors may raise a person’s risk of developing a brain tumor:

  • Age. Brain tumors are more common in children and older adults, although people of any age can develop a brain tumor.

  • Gender. In general, men are more likely than women to develop a brain tumor. However, some specific types of brain tumors, such as meningioma, are more common in women.

  • Home and work exposures. Exposure to solvents, pesticides, oil products, rubber, or vinyl chloride may increase the risk of developing a brain tumor. However, there is not yet scientific evidence that supports this possible link.

  • Family history. About 5% of brain tumors may be linked to hereditary genetic factors or conditions, including Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Turcot syndrome, and von Hippel-Lindau disease. Scientists have also found “clusters” of brain tumors within some families without a link to these known hereditary conditions. Studies are underway to try to find a cause for these clusters.

  • Exposure to infections, viruses, and allergens. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) increases the risk of CNS lymphoma. EBV is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or “mono”. In other research, high levels of a common virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV) have been found in brain tumor tissue. The meaning of this finding is being researched. Several types of other viruses have been shown to cause brain tumors in research on animals. More data are needed to find out if exposure to infections, other viruses, or allergens increase the risk of a brain tumor in people. Of note, studies have shown that patients with a history of allergies or skin conditions have a lower risk of glioma. 

  • Electromagnetic fields. Most studies evaluating the role of electromagnetic fields, such as energy from power lines or from cell phone use, show no link to an increased risk of developing a brain tumor in adults. Because of conflicting information regarding risk in children, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting cell phone use and promotes the use of a hands-free headset for both adults and children.

  • Race and ethnicity. In the United States, white people are more likely to develop gliomas but less likely to develop meningioma than black people. Also, people from northern Europe are more than twice as likely to develop a brain tumor as people in Japan.

  • Ionizing radiation. Previous treatment to the brain or head with ionizing radiation, including x-rays, has shown, in some cases, to be a risk factor for a brain tumor.

  • Head injury and seizures. Serious head trauma has long been studied for its relationship to brain tumors. Some studies have shown a link between head trauma and meningioma, but not one between head trauma and glioma. A history of seizures has long been associated with brain tumors, but because a brain tumor can cause seizures, it is not known if seizures increase the risk of brain tumors, if seizures occur because of the tumor, or if anti-seizure medication increases the risk.

  • N-nitroso compounds. Some studies of diet and vitamin supplementation seem to indicate that dietary N-nitroso compounds may raise the risk of both childhood and adult brain tumors. Dietary N-nitroso compounds are formed in the body from nitrites or nitrates found in some cured meats, cigarette smoke, and cosmetics. However, additional research is necessary before a definitive link can be established.

  • Exposure to nerve agents. A study has shown that some Gulf War veterans have an increased risk of a brain tumor from exposure to nerve agents. However, more research is needed before a definitive link can be made.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems this disease can cause. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide. 

Brain Tumor - Symptoms and Signs

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages, use the menu.

People with a brain tumor may experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with a brain tumor do not have any of these changes. Or, the cause of a symptom may be another medical condition that is not a brain tumor.

Symptoms of a brain tumor can be general or specific. A general symptom is caused by the pressure of the tumor on the brain or spinal cord. Specific symptoms are caused when a specific part of the brain is not working well because of the tumor. For many people with a brain tumor, they were diagnosed when they went to the doctor after experiencing a problem, such as a headache or other changes. 

General symptoms include:

  • Headaches, which may be severe and worsen with activity or in the early morning

  • Seizures. Motor seizures, also called convulsions, are sudden involuntary movements of a person’s muscles. People may experience different types of seizures, including myclonic and tonic-clonic (grand mal). Certain drugs can help prevent or control them. The differences between these types of seizures are listed below:

    • Myclonic

      • Single or multiple muscle twitches, jerks, spasms

    • Tonic-Clonic (Grand Mal)

      • Loss of consciousness and body tone, followed by twitching and relaxing muscles that are called contractions

      • Loss of control of body functions

      • May be a short 30-second period of no breathing and a person may turn a shade of blue

      • After this type of seizure a person may be sleepy and experience a headache, confusion, weakness, numbness, and sore muscles.

    • Sensory

      • Change in sensation, vision, smell, and/or hearing without losing consciousness

    • Complex partial

      • May cause a loss of awareness or a partial or total loss of consciousness

      • May be associated with repetitive, unintentional movements, such as twitching

  • Personality or memory changes

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Fatigue

  • Drowsiness

  • Sleep problems

  • Memory problems

  • Changes in ability to walk or perform daily activities

Symptoms that may be specific to the location of the tumor include:

  • Pressure or headache near the tumor

  • Loss of balance and difficulty with fine motor skills is linked with a tumor in the cerebellum.

  • Changes in judgment, including loss of initiative, sluggishness, and muscle weakness or paralysis is associated with a tumor in the frontal lobe of the cerebrum.

  • Partial or complete loss of vision is caused by a tumor in the occipital lobe or temporal lobe of the cerebrum.

  • Changes in speech, hearing, memory, or emotional state, such as aggressiveness and problems understanding or retrieving words can develop from a tumor in the frontal and temporal lobe of the cerebrum.

  • Altered perception of touch or pressure, arm or leg weakness on 1 side of the body, or confusion with left and right sides of the body are linked to a tumor in the frontal or parietal lobe of the cerebrum.

  • Inability to look upward can be caused by a pineal gland tumor.

  • Lactation, which is the secretion of breast milk and altered menstrual periods in women, and growth in hands and feet in adults are associated with a pituitary tumor.

  • Difficulty swallowing, facial weakness or numbness, or double vision is a symptom of a tumor in the brain stem.

  • Vision changes, including loss of part of the vision or double vision can be from a tumor in the temporal lobe, occipital lobe, or brain stem.

If you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If a brain tumor is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of your care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms. Learn more about managing symptoms of a brain tumor in the Treatment Options section.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - Diagnosis

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. To see other pages, use the menu.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, a brain tumor and learn the type of brain tumor. They also do tests to learn if it has spread to another part of the body from where it started. This is called metastasis and is rare for a brain tumor. Doctors may also do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

For most types of tumors, taking a sample of the possible tumor is the only sure way for the doctor to know whether an area of the body has a tumor. This may be done in a procedure called a biopsy or by removing part or all of the tumor with surgery. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If this is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

Imaging tests can help doctors find out if the tumor is a primary brain tumor or if it is cancer that has spread to the brain from elsewhere in the body. Imaging tests show pictures of the inside of the body. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of tumor suspected

  • Your signs and symptoms

  • Your age and medical condition

  • The results of earlier medical tests

Most brain tumors are not diagnosed until after symptoms appear. Often a brain tumor is initially diagnosed by an internist or a neurologist. An internist is a doctor who specializes in treating adults. A neurologist is a doctor who specializes in problems with the brain and central nervous system.

In addition to asking the patient for a detailed medical history and doing a physical examination, the doctor may recommend the tests described below to determine the presence, and perhaps the type or grade, of a brain tumor.

In general, diagnosing a brain tumor usually begins with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Once MRI shows that there is a tumor in the brain, the most common way to determine the type of brain tumor is to look at the results from a sample of tissue after a biopsy or surgery. These tests and procedures are described below in more detail.

  • MRI. An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body. MRI can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill to swallow. MRIs create more detailed pictures than CT scans (see below) and are the preferred way to diagnose a brain tumor. The MRI may be of the brain, spinal cord, or both, depending on the type of tumor suspected and the likelihood that it will spread in the CNS. There are different types of MRI. The results of a neuro-examination, done by the internist or neurologist, helps determine which type of MRI to use.

    • Intravenous (IV) gadolinium-enhanced MRI is typically used to help create a clearer picture of a brain tumor. This is when a patient first has a regular MRI, and afterwards is given a special type of contrast medium called gadolinium through an IV. Then, a second MRI is done to get another series of pictures using the dye.

    • A spinal MRI may be used to diagnose a tumor on or near the spine.

    • A functional MRI (fMRI) provides information about the location of specific areas of the brain that are responsible for muscle movement and speech. During the fMRI examination, the patient is asked to do certain tasks that cause changes in the brain and can be seen on the fMRI image. This test is used to help plan surgery, so the surgeon can avoid damaging the functional parts of the brain while removing the tumor.

    • Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is a test using MRI that provides information on the chemical composition of the brain. It can help tell the difference between dead tissue caused by previous radiation treatments and new tumor cells in the brain.

  • Tissue sampling/biopsy/surgical removal of a tumor. A sample of the tumor’s tissue is usually needed for the final diagnosis. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope and is the only definitive way a brain tumor can be diagnosed. A pathologist then analyzes the sample(s). A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease. A biopsy can be done as part of surgery to remove the entire tumor. Or, surgery may be done as a separate procedure if completely removing the tumor is not possible because of its location or a patient’s health.

Your health care team may also recommend other tests to help make a diagnosis or find out how well treatment is working. It is important to remember that not all tests listed will be used for every person.

  • CT scan. A CT scan creates a 3-dimensional picture of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can help find bleeding and enlargement of the fluid-filled spaces in the brain, called ventricles. Changes to bone in the skull can also be seen on a CT scan, and it can be used to measure a tumor’s size. A CT scan may also be used if the patient cannot have an MRI, such as if the person has a pacemaker for his or her heart. Sometimes, a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill to swallow.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) or PET-CT scan. A PET scan is used at first to find out more about a tumor while a patient is receiving treatment. It may also be used if the tumor comes back after treatment. A PET scan is usually combined with a CT scan (see above), called a PET-CT scan. However, you may hear your doctor refer to this procedure just as a PET scan. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the patient’s body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because tumor cells tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.

  • Cerebral arteriogram, also called a cerebral angiogram. A cerebral arteriogram is an x-ray, or series of x-rays, of the head that shows the arteries in the brain. X-rays are taken after a contrast medium is injected into the main arteries of the patient’s head.

  • Lumbar puncture or spinal tap. A lumbar puncture is a procedure in which a doctor uses a needle to take a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to look for tumor cells, blood, or tumor markers. Tumor markers or biomarkers are substances found in higher than normal amounts in the blood, urine, spinal fluid, plasma or other bodily fluids of people with certain types of cancer. Typically a local anesthetic is given to numb the patient’s lower back before the procedure.

  • Myelogram. The doctor may recommend a myelogram to find out if the tumor has spread to the spinal fluid, other parts of the brain, or the spinal cord. A myelogram uses a dye injected into the CSF that surrounds the spinal cord. The dye shows up on an x-ray and can outline the spinal cord to help the doctor look for a tumor. This is rarely done; a lumbar puncture (see above) is more common.

  • Molecular testing of the tumor. Your doctor may recommend running laboratory tests on a tumor sample to identify specific genes, proteins, and other factors, such as tumor markers, unique to the tumor. Some biomarkers may help doctors determine a patient’s prognosis (see Grades and Prognostic Factors). Researchers are examining biomarkers to find ways to diagnose a brain tumor before symptoms begin. Ultimately, results of these tests may help decide whether your treatment options include a type of treatment called targeted therapy (see Treatment Options). The markers most commonly looked at for brain tumors include:

    • For oligodendroglioma, the loss of part of chromosome 1 on the p part of the chromosome, and the loss of part of chromosome 19 on the q part of the chromosome. This is called a 1p and 19q co-deletion. It is linked to more successful treatment, particularly with chemotherapy, and can be used to help plan treatment, especially for anaplastic oligodendroglioma.

    • Mutations in the isocitrate dehydrogenase (IDH) gene which is found in about 70% to 80% of low-grade gliomas in adults. Higher-grade tumors can also have IDH gene mutations, which suggests that these tumors started as lower-grade tumors that became a higher grade. This mutation is linked with a better prognosis in both low-grade and high-grade tumors.

    • In glioblastoma, whether a gene called methyl guanine methyl transferase (MGMT) is changed can help the doctor understand a patient’s prognosis and how well treatment will work. Its role in determining the benefit of treatment is being tested in clinical trials.

  • Neurological, vision, and hearing tests. These tests help determine if a tumor is affecting how the brain functions. An eye examination can detect changes to the optic nerve, as well as changes to a person’s field of vision.

  • Neurocognitive assessment. This consists of a detailed assessment of all major functions of the brain, such as storage and retrieval of memory, expressive and receptive language abilities, calculation, dexterity, and the overall well-being of the patient. These tests are done by a licensed clinical neuropsychologist, who will write a formal report to be used for comparison with future assessments or to identify specific problems that can be helped through treatment.

  • Electroencephalography (EEG). An EEG is a noninvasive test in which electrodes are attached to the outside of a person's head to measure electrical activity of the brain. It is used to monitor for possible seizures (see Symptoms and Signs).

  • Evoked potentials. Evoked potentials involve the use of electrodes to measure the electrical activity of nerves and can often detect acoustic schwannoma, a noncancerous brain tumor. This test can be used as a guide when removing a tumor that is growing around important nerves.

Test results

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is a tumor, additional tests will be done to learn more about the tumor. The results help the doctor describe the tumor and plan treatment.

The next section in this guide is Grades and Prognostic Factors. It explains the system doctors use to describe a brain tumor. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - Grades and Prognostic Factors

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about how doctors describe a brain tumor’s growth or spread. This is called the grade. You will also learn about the prognostic factors doctors use to help plan treatment. To see other pages, use the menu.

A staging system is used for most other types of cancer to describe where a tumor is located, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body. However, there is no recommended systemic staging system for adult brain tumors because most primary tumors do not usually spread beyond the central nervous system. The grading system described below is always used instead because how cancerous a tumor is and how likely it is to grow depends on its specific features.

Prognostic factors

To decide on the best treatment for a brain tumor, both the type and grade of the tumor must be determined. There are several factors that help doctors determine the appropriate brain tumor treatment plan and determine prognosis:

  • Tumor histology. As outlined in the Diagnosis section, a sample of the tumor is removed for analysis. Tumor histology includes the type of tumor, the grade, and additional molecular features. Together, these factors will help your doctor understand how the tumor will behave. These factors may also help determine a patient’s treatment options.

Grade describes specific features in the tumor that are linked with specific outcomes. For example, doctors may consider whether the tumor cells are growing out of control or if there are a lot of dead cells. Tumors with features generally linked with growing more quickly are given a higher grade. For most tumors, the lower the grade, the better the prognosis.

Specifically for glial tumors, the grade is determined by its features, as seen under a microscope, according to the following criteria:

    • Grade I. This is a separate group of tumors called juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma (JPA) and subependymoma. These are noninvasive and slow growing and can often be cured with surgery.

    • Grade II. These tumors do not have actively dividing cells or dead cells in the tumor, called necrosis, but show many abnormal cells. A grade II tumor can be an astrocytoma, ependymoma, or oligodendroglioma.

    • Grade III. These tumors are given a grade based on the cell type. For example, anaplastic astrocytoma is a grade III tumor that contains dividing cells but no dead cells. In contrast, anaplastic oligodendroglioma and anaplastic ependymoma are grade III tumors that do have dead cells.

    • Grade IV. A grade IV tumor is usually glioblastoma. Cells in the tumor are actively dividing. In addition, the tumor has blood vessel growth and areas of dead tissue.

  • Age of patient. In adults, the age of the patient and his or her level of functioning, called functional status (see below) when diagnosed is one of the best ways to predict a patient’s prognosis. In general, a younger adult has a better prognosis.

  • Extent of tumor residual. Resection is surgery to remove a tumor. Residual refers to how much of the tumor remains in the body after surgery. A patient’s prognosis is better when all of the tumor can be surgically removed. There are 4 classifications:

    • Gross total: The entire tumor was removed. However, microscopic cells may remain.

    • Subtotal: Large portions of the tumor were removed.

    • Partial: Only part of the tumor was removed.

    • Biopsy only: Only a small portion, used for a biopsy, was removed.

  • Tumor location. A tumor can form in any part of the brain. Some tumor locations cause more damage than others, and some tumors are harder to treat because of their location.

  • Functional neurologic status. The doctor will test how well a patient is able to function and carry out everyday activities by using a functional assessment scale, such as the Karnofsky Performance Scale (KPS), outlined below. A higher score indicates a better functional status. Typically, someone who is better able to walk and care for themselves has a better prognosis.

100 Normal, no complaints, no evidence of disease

90 Able to carry on normal activity; minor symptoms of disease

80 Normal activity with effort; some symptoms of disease

70 Cares for self; unable to carry on normal activity or active work

60 Requires occasional assistance but is able to care for needs

50 Requires considerable assistance and frequent medical care

40 Disabled: requires special care and assistance

30 Severely disabled; hospitalization is indicated, but death not imminent

20 Very sick, hospitalization necessary; active treatment necessary

10 Moribund, fatal processes progressing rapidly

0   Dead

  • Metastatic spread. A tumor that starts in the brain or spinal cord, if cancerous, rarely spreads to other parts of the body in adults, but may grow within the CNS. For that reason, with few exceptions, tests looking at the other organs of the body are typically not needed. A tumor that does spread to other parts of the brain or spinal cord is linked with a poorer prognosis.
  • Recurrent tumor. A recurrent tumor is one that has come back after treatment. If the tumor does return, there will be another round of tests to learn about the extent of the recurrence. These tests and scans are often similar to those done at the time of the original diagnosis.

Currently, the factors listed above are the best indicators of a patient’s prognosis. As discussed in Diagnosis, researchers are currently looking for biomarkers in the tumor tissue that could make a brain tumor easier to diagnose and allow for the staging of an adult brain tumor in the future. Researchers are also looking at other genetic tests that may predict a patient’s prognosis. These tools may someday help doctors predict the chance that a brain tumor will grow, develop more effective treatments, and more accurately predict prognosis.

Used with permission of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC), Chicago, Illinois. The original source for this material is the AJCC Cancer Staging Manual, Seventh Edition published by Springer-Verlag New York,

Information about the tumor’s grade, as well as the prognostic factors, will help the doctor recommend a specific treatment plan. The next section in this guide is Treatment Options. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - Treatment Options

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different ways doctors use to treat people with a brain tumor. To see other pages, use the menu.

This section tells you the treatments that are the standard of care for a brain tumor. “Standard of care” means the best treatments known. When making treatment plan decisions, patients are also encouraged to consider clinical trials as an option. A clinical trial is a research study that tests a new approach to treatment. Doctors want to learn if it is safe, effective, and possibly better than the standard treatment. Clinical trials can test a new drug, a new combination of standard treatments, or new doses of standard drugs or other treatments. Your doctor can help you consider all your treatment options. To learn more about clinical trials, see the About Clinical Trials and Latest Research section.

Treatment overview

In brain tumor care, different types of doctors often work together to create a patient’s overall treatment plan that combines different types of treatment. This is called a multidisciplinary team. Cancer care teams also include a variety of other health care professionals, including physician assistants, oncology nurses, social workers, pharmacists, counselors, dietitians, and others.

Descriptions of the most common treatment options for a brain tumor are listed below, including treatments that help manage symptoms. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors:

  • The size, type, and grade of the tumor

  • Whether the tumor is putting pressure on vital parts of the brain

  • If the tumor has spread to other parts of the CNS or body

  • Possible side effects

  • The patient’s preferences and overall health.

Some types of brain tumors grow rapidly; other tumors grow slowly. Considering all these factors, your doctor will talk with you about how soon treatment should start after diagnosis.

Treatment options include those described below, such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Your care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of your medical care.

For a low-grade brain tumor, surgery may be the only treatment needed especially if all of the tumor can be removed. If there is visible tumor remaining after surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be used. For higher-grade tumors, treatment usually begins with surgery, followed by radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Your exact treatment plan will be made by your health care team.

Successfully treating brain tumors can be challenging. The body’s blood-brain barrier normally protects the brain and spinal cord from harmful chemicals in the bloodstream. However, this barrier also keeps out many types of chemotherapy. Surgery can be difficult if the tumor is near a delicate part of the brain or spinal cord. Even when the surgeon can completely remove the original tumor, there may be parts of the tumor remaining that are too small to be seen or removed during surgery. And, radiation therapy can damage healthy tissue.

However, research in the past 20 years has helped to significantly lengthen the lives of people with brain tumors. More refined surgeries, a better understanding of the types of tumors that respond to chemotherapy, and more targeted delivery of radiation therapy have lengthened lives and improved the quality of life for many people diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Take time to learn about all of your treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Also, talk about the goals of each treatment with your doctor and what you can expect while receiving the treatment. Learn more about making treatment decisions.

Getting care for symptoms and side effects

A brain tumor and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatment to slow, stop, or eliminate the tumor, an important part of care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs.

Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care. It works best when palliative care is started as early as needed in the treatment process. People often receive treatment for the tumor and treatment to ease side effects at the same time. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.

Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, emotional support, and other therapies. You may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to eliminate the tumor, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy. Talk with your doctor about the goals of each treatment in your treatment plan.

Some of the symptoms of a brain tumor can be severe and have an enormous impact on a patient’s life. However, they can often be managed with the use of certain medications. Supportive care for people with a brain tumor includes:

  • Drugs called corticosteroids are used to lower swelling in the brain, which can lessen pain from the swelling without the need for prescription pain medications. These drugs may also help improve neurological symptoms by decreasing the pressure from the tumor and swelling in the healthy brain tissue.

  • Antiseizure medication to help control seizures. There are several types of drugs available, and they are prescribed by your neurologist.

Before treatment begins, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects of your specific treatment plan and palliative care options. And during and after treatment, be sure to tell your doctor or another health care team member if you are experiencing a problem so it can be addressed as quickly as possible. Learn more about palliative care.


Surgery is the removal of the tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue during an operation. It is usually the first treatment used for a brain tumor and is often the only treatment needed for a low-grade brain tumor. Removing the tumor can improve neurological symptoms, provide tissue for diagnosis, help make other brain tumor treatments more effective, and, in many instances, improve the prognosis of a person with a brain tumor.

A neurosurgeon is a doctor who specializes in surgery on the brain and spinal column. Surgery to the brain requires the removal of part of the skull, a procedure called a craniotomy. After the surgeon removes the tumor, the patient's own bone will be used to cover the opening in the skull.

There have been rapid advances in surgery for brain tumors, including the use of cortical mapping. This technique allows doctors to identify certain areas of the brain that control the senses, language, and motor skills. In addition, enhanced imaging devices give surgeons more tools to plan and perform surgery. For example, computer-based techniques, such as Image Guided Surgery (IGS), help surgeons map out the location of the tumor very accurately. However, this is a very specialized technique that may not be widely available.

For a tumor that is near the brain’s speech center, it is increasingly common to perform the operation when the patient is awake for part of the surgery. Typically, the patient is awakened once the surface of the brain is exposed. Then, special electrical stimulation techniques are used to locate the specific part of the brain that controls speech. This approach can avoid causing damage while removing the tumor.

In addition to removing or reducing the size of the brain tumor, surgery can provide a tissue sample for biopsy analysis, as explained in Diagnosis. For some tumor types, the results of this analysis can help determine if chemotherapy or radiation therapy will be useful. For a cancerous tumor, even if it cannot be cured, removing it can relieve symptoms from the tumor pressing on the brain.

Sometimes, surgery cannot be performed because the tumor is located in a place the surgeon cannot reach or is near a vital structure; these tumors are called inoperable. If the tumor is inoperable, the doctor will recommend other treatment options.

Before surgery, talk with your health care team about the possible side effects and how they will be managed or relieved. Learn more about the basics of surgery.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy tumor cells. Doctors may use radiation therapy to slow or stop the growth of the tumor. It is typically given after surgery and possibly along with chemotherapy. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat a tumor is called a radiation oncologist. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation treatment is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time.

External-beam radiation therapy can be directed at the tumor in the following ways:

  • Conventional radiation therapy. The treatment location is determined based on anatomic landmarks and x-rays. In certain situations, such as whole brain radiation therapy for brain metastases, this technique is appropriate. For more precise targeting, different techniques are needed. The amount of radiation given depends on the tumor’s grade.

  • 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT). Using images from CT and MRI scans (see Diagnosis), a 3-dimensional model of the tumor and healthy tissue surrounding the tumor is created on a computer. This model can be used to aim the radiation beams directly at the tumor, sparing the healthy tissue from high doses of radiation therapy.

  • Intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT is a type of 3D-CRT (see above) that can more directly target a tumor. It can deliver higher doses of radiation to the tumor while giving less to the surrounding healthy tissue. In IMRT, the radiation beams are broken up into smaller beams and the intensity of each of these smaller beams can be changed. This means that the more intense beams, or the beams giving more radiation, can be directed only at the tumor.

  • Proton therapy. Proton therapy is a type of external-beam radiation therapy that uses protons rather than x-rays. At high energy, protons can destroy tumor cells. Proton beam therapy is typically used for tumors when less radiation is needed because of the location. This includes tumors that have grown into nearby bone, such as the base of skull, and those near the optic nerve.

  • Stereotactic radiosurgery. Stereotactic radiosurgery is the use of a single, high dose of radiation given directly to the tumor and not healthy tissue. It works best for a tumor that is only in 1 area of the brain and certain noncancerous tumors. It can also be used when a person has more than 1 metastatic brain tumor. There are many different types of stereotactic radiosurgery equipment, including:

    • A modified linear accelerator is a machine that creates high-energy radiation by using electricity to form a stream of fast-moving subatomic particles.

    • A gamma knife is another form of radiation therapy that concentrates highly focused beams of gamma radiation on the tumor.

    • A cyber knife is a robotic device used in radiation therapy to guide radiation to the tumor target—particularly in the brain, head, and neck regions.

  • Fractionated stereotactic radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is delivered with stereotactic precision but divided into small daily doses called fractions given over several weeks, in contrast to the 1-day radiosurgery. This technique is used for tumors located close to sensitive structures, such as the optic nerves or brain stem.

With these different techniques, doctors are trying to be more precise and reduce radiation exposure to the surrounding healthy brain tissue. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, the radiation oncologist may choose any of the above radiation techniques. In certain situations, a combination of multiple techniques may work best.

Short-term side effects from radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, hair loss, upset stomach, and neurologic symptoms. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished. Also, radiation therapy is usually not recommended for children younger than 5 because of the high risk of damage to their developing brains. Longer term side effects of radiation depend on how much healthy tissue received radiation therapy and include memory and hormonal problems and cognitive (thought process) changes, such as difficulty understanding and performing complex tasks.

Learn more about the basics of radiation therapy on this website, or see the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology’s pamphlet, Radiation Therapy for Brain Tumors.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy tumor cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. The goal of chemotherapy can be to destroy tumor cells remaining after surgery, slow a tumor’s growth, or reduce symptoms. Chemotherapy is given by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating tumors with medication. Chemotherapy may also be given by a neuro-oncologist.

Systemic chemotherapy gets into the bloodstream to reach tumor cells throughout the body. Common ways to give chemotherapy include a pill or capsule that is swallowed (orally) or by intravenous (IV) injection placed into a vein using a needle. It may also be given through a catheter or port, which are used to make IV injections easier.

As explained above, chemotherapy to treat a brain tumor is typically given after surgery and possibly with or after radiation therapy, particularly if the tumor has come back after initial treatment.

A chemotherapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive 1 drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.

Some drugs are better at going through the blood-brain barrier. These are the drugs often used for a brain tumor.

  • Gliadel wafers are one way to give the drug carmustine. These wafers are placed in the area where the tumor was removed during surgery.
  • For people with glioblastoma and high-grade glioma, the latest standard of care is radiation therapy with daily low-dose temozolomide (Temodar). This is followed by monthly doses of temozolomide after radiation therapy for 6 months to 1 year.
  • A combination of 3 drugs, lomustine (Gleostine), procarbazine (Matulane), and vincristine (Vincasar), have been used along with radiation therapy. This approach has helped lengthen the lives of patients with grade III oligodendroglioma with a 1p19q co-deletion (see Biogenetic markers in the Grades and Prognostic Factors section) when given either before or right after radiation therapy. It has also been shown to lengthen lives of patients after radiation therapy for a low-grade tumor that could not be completely removed with surgery. Clinical trials on the use of chemotherapy to delay radiation therapy in patients with low-grade glioma are also ongoing.

Patients are monitored with a brain MRI every 2 to 3 months while receiving active treatment. Then, the length of time between MRI scans increases depending on the tumor’s grade. Patients often have regular MRIs to monitor their health after treatment is finished and the tumor has not grown. If the tumor grows during treatment, other treatment options will be considered.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away once treatment is finished. Rarely, certain drugs may cause some hearing loss. Others may cause kidney damage. Patients may be given extra fluid by IV to protect their kidneys.

Learn more about the basics of chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat a brain tumor are continually being evaluated. Talking with your doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for you, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.

Targeted therapy

In addition to standard chemotherapy, targeted therapy is a treatment that targets the tumor’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to a tumor’s growth and survival. This type of treatment blocks the growth and spread of tumor cells while limiting the damage to healthy cells.

Recent studies show that not all tumors have the same targets, and some tumors may have more than 1 target. To find the most effective treatment, your doctor may run tests to identify the genes, proteins, and other factors in your tumor. This helps doctors better match each patient with the most effective treatment whenever possible. In addition, many research studies are taking place now to find out more about specific molecular targets and new treatments directed at them. Learn more about the basics of targeted treatments.

For a brain tumor, anti-angiogenesis therapy is a type of targeted therapy used, and others are being researched. It is focused on stopping angiogenesis, which is the process of making new blood vessels. Because a tumor needs the nutrients delivered by blood vessels to grow and spread, the goal of anti-angiogenesis therapies is to “starve” the tumor. Bevacizumab (Avastin) is an anti-angiogenesis therapy used to treat glioblastoma multiforme when prior treatment has not worked. Talk with your doctor about possible side effects for a specific medication and how they can be managed.

Alternating electric field therapy (tumor treating fields)

This type of treatment uses a noninvasive portable device that interferes with parts of a cell that are needed for the tumor cells to grow and spread. It is given by placing electrodes that produce an electric field on the outside of a person’s head. The available device is called Optune.

Alternating electrical field therapy may be an option for people newly diagnosed with glioblastoma or for those with recurrent glioblastoma. In 1 study, researchers found that patients with recurrent glioblastoma who used the device lived as long as those who received chemotherapy. In addition, they had fewer side effects. Early results of another study showed that patients newly diagnosed with glioblastoma lived longer and were less likely to have the disease worsen when this treatment was used along temozolomide after radiation therapy. This treatment approach is now considered a recommended option for glioblastoma.

Remission and the chance of recurrence

A remission is when the tumor cannot be detected in the body. A remission can be temporary or permanent.  

For most primary brain tumors, despite imaging tests showing that the tumor growth is controlled or there are no visible signs of a tumor, it is common for a brain tumor to recur.

Patients will often continue to receive MRI scans to watch for a recurrence. This uncertainty causes many people to worry that the tumor will come back. It is important to talk with your doctor about the possibility of the tumor returning. Understanding your risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help you feel more prepared if the tumor does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence.

If the tumor does return after the original treatment, it is called a recurrent tumor. A recurrent brain tumor generally comes back near where it originally started. Rarely, it may come back in another place, called multifocal.

When this occurs, a cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After testing is done, you and your doctor will talk about your treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the treatments described above such as surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy, but they may be used in a different combination or given at a different pace. Temozolomide has been approved to treat Grade III recurrent tumors. Bevacizumab (see above) may also be used for a recurrent tumor. In addition, alternating electric field therapy may be used for patients with recurrent high-grade glioma.

There is no single approach to treating a recurrent brain tumor, and your treatment plan will be based on many factors. Whichever treatment plan you choose, palliative care will be important for relieving symptoms and side effects. Your doctor may suggest clinical trials of new drugs that are being created and tested to treat brain tumors that may help with recurrent tumors. Many of these new drugs are called "molecularly targeted therapies" because they are small in size, which means they can be taken by mouth, and/or can target specific parts of the brain tumor cells. These new drugs are being tested either alone or in combination with standard chemotherapy. Learn more about clinical trials on brain tumor treatment in the Latest Research section.

People with a recurrent brain tumor often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. For most patients, a diagnosis of a recurrent brain tumor is very stressful and, at times, difficult to bear. Patients and their families are encouraged to talk about the way they are feeling with doctors, nurses, social workers, or other members of the health care team and to ask about support services to help them cope. It may also be helpful to talk with other patients, including through a support group. Learn more about dealing with a recurrence.

If treatment fails

Recovery from a brain tumor is not always possible. If the tumor cannot be cured or controlled, the disease may be called advanced or terminal.

This diagnosis is stressful, and an advanced brain tumor is difficult to discuss for many people. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor and health care team to express your feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families. Making sure a person is physically comfortable and free from pain is extremely important.

Patients who have an advanced brain tumor and who are expected to live less than 6 months may want to consider a type of palliative care called hospice care. Hospice care is designed to provide the best possible quality of life for people who are near the end of life. You and your family are encouraged to think about where you would be most comfortable: at home, in the hospital, or in a hospice environment. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable alternative for many families. Learn more about advanced care planning.

After the death of a loved one, many people need support to help them cope with the loss. Learn more about grief and loss.

The next section in this guide is About Clinical Trials. It offers more information about research studies that are focused on finding better ways to care for people with a brain tumor. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - About Clinical Trials

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn more about clinical trials, which are the main way that new medical approaches are tested to see how well they work. To see other pages, use the menu.

Doctors and scientists are always looking for better ways to care for patients with a brain tumor. To make scientific advances, doctors create research studies involving volunteers, called clinical trials. In fact, every drug that is now approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was tested in clinical trials.

What are clinical trials?

Many clinical trials focus on new treatments. Researchers want to learn if a new treatment is safe, effective, and possibly better than the treatment doctors use now. These types of studies evaluate new drugs, different combinations of existing treatments, new approaches to radiation therapy or surgery, and new methods of treatment. Patients who participate in clinical trials can be some of the first to get a treatment before it is available to the public. However, there is no guarantee that the new treatment will be safe, effective, or better than what doctors use now.

Some clinical trials study new ways to relieve symptoms and side effects during treatment. Others study ways to manage the late effects that may happen a long time after treatment. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials for symptoms and side effects. There are also clinical trials studying ways to prevent cancer.

Deciding to join a clinical trial

Patients decide to participate in clinical trials for many reasons. For some patients, a clinical trial is the best treatment option available. Because standard treatments are not perfect, patients are often willing to face the added uncertainty of a clinical trial in the hope of a better result. Other patients volunteer for clinical trials because they know that these studies are the only way to make progress in treating a brain tumor. Even if they do not benefit directly from the clinical trial, their participation may benefit future patients with a brain tumor.

Sometimes people have concerns that, in a clinical trial, they may receive no treatment by being given a placebo or a “sugar pill.” However, placebos are usually combined with standard treatment in most cancer clinical trials. When a placebo is used in a study, it is done with the full knowledge of the participants. Find out more about placebos in cancer clinical trials.

Patient safety and informed consent

To join a clinical trial, patients must participate in a process known as informed consent. During informed consent, the doctor should list all of the patient’s options, so that the person understands how the new treatment differs from the standard treatment. The doctor must also list all of the risks of the new treatment, which may or may not be different than the risks of standard treatment. Finally, the doctor must explain what will be required of each patient in order to participate in the clinical trial, including the number of doctor visits, tests, and the schedule of treatment.

Patients who participate in a clinical trial may stop participating at any time, for any personal or medical reason. This may include that the new treatment is not working or there are serious side effects. Clinical trials are also closely monitored by experts who watch for any problems with each study. It is important that patients participating in a clinical trial talk with their doctor and researchers about who will be providing their treatment and care during the clinical trial, after the clinical trial ends, and/or if the patient chooses to leave the clinical trial before it ends.

Finding a clinical trial

Research through clinical trials is ongoing for all tumor types. For specific topics being studied for brain tumors, learn more in the Latest Research section.

Cancer.Net offers a lot of information about clinical trials in other areas of the website, including a complete section on clinical trials and places to search for clinical trials for a specific type of tumor.

In addition, this website offers free access to a video-based educational program about clinical trials, located outside of this guide.

The next section in this guide is Latest Research. It explains areas of scientific research currently going on for brain tumors. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.    

Brain Tumor - Latest Research

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about the scientific research being done now to learn more about brain tumors and how to treat them. To see other pages, use the menu.

Doctors are working to learn more about brain tumors, ways to prevent them, how to best treat them, and how to provide the best care to people diagnosed with a brain tumor. The following areas of research may include new options for patients through clinical trials. Always talk with your doctor about the diagnostic and treatment options best for you.

  • Enhanced imaging tests. New techniques for imaging scans are being researched. These may help doctors better track how well treatment is working and watch for possible tumor recurrence or growth.

  • Biomarkers. Researchers are examining biomarkers to diagnose a brain tumor and estimate a patient’s prognosis.

  • Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy, also called biological response modifier (BRM) therapy, is designed to boost the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials either made by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function. Different methods are being studied for brain tumors, such as the use of dendritic cells or the use of vaccines aimed against a specific molecule on the surface of the tumor cells. Several methods are currently being tested in clinical trials.

  • Oncolytic virus therapy. This therapy uses a virus that infects and destroys tumor cells, sparing healthy brain cells. It is currently being researched as a treatment for brain tumors.

  • Targeted therapy. As outlined in Treatment Options, this type of treatment targets faulty genes or proteins that contribute to a tumor’s growth and development. Research continues on the use of therapies for brain tumors that target the different ways a tumor grows, how a tumor spreads, and how tumor cells die.

  • Blood-brain barrier disruption. This technique temporarily disrupts the brain’s natural protective barrier in order to allow chemotherapy to more easily enter the brain from the bloodstream.

  • New drugs and combinations of drugs. Researchers are looking at using drugs currently used for other types of cancer as treatment for a brain tumor. In addition, combinations of drugs that target different pathways a tumor uses to grow and spread are being explored. Since tumors can develop resistance to chemotherapy, meaning the treatment stops working, another approach is to use a treatment that targets how tumor cells develop resistance.

  • Gene therapy. This type of therapy seeks to replace or repair abnormal genes that are causing or helping tumor growth.

  • Genetic research. Researchers are seeking to learn more about mutations of specific genes and how they relate to the risk and growth of brain tumors. In particular, The Cancer Genome Atlas Research Network is a large, ongoing effort by the National Institutes of Health to find out more about the link between genetics and glioblastoma. Recent results include the discovery of 3 specific genetic mutations not previously linked to glioblastoma: NF1, ERBB2, and PIK3R1. Other findings focused on the involvement of the MGMT gene and mutations of IDH gene. This information is useful to researchers and may eventually lead to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of this type of brain tumor. Precision medicine approaches that target tumor-specific mutations are being explored.

  • Palliative care. Clinical trials are underway to find better ways of reducing symptoms and side effects of current brain tumor treatments to improve patients’ comfort and quality of life.

Looking for More About the Latest Research?

If you would like additional information about the latest areas of research regarding brain tumors, explore these related items that take you outside of this guide:

The next section in this guide is Coping with Treatment. It offers some guidance in how to cope with the physical, emotional, and social changes that a brain tumor and its treatment can bring. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - Coping with Treatment

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn more about coping with the physical, emotional, social, and financial effects of a brain tumor and its treatment. This page includes several links outside of this guide to other sections of this website. To see other pages, use the menu.

Every treatment for a brain tumor can cause side effects or changes to your body and how you feel. For many reasons, people don’t experience the same side effects even when given the same treatment for the same type of tumor. This can make it hard to predict how you will feel during treatment.

As you prepare to start treatment, it is normal to fear treatment-related side effects. It may help to know that your health care team will work to prevent and relieve side effects. Doctors call this part of treatment “palliative care.” It is an important part of your treatment plan, regardless of your age or the stage of disease.

Coping with physical side effects

Common physical side effects from each treatment option for a brain tumor are described within the Treatment Options section. Learn more about side effects of a brain tumor and its treatment, along with ways to prevent or control them. Changes to your physical health depend on several factors, including the tumor’s location and grade, the length and dose of treatment, and your general health.

Sometimes, physical side effects can last after treatment ends. Doctors call these long-term side effects. They call side effects that occur months or years after treatment late effects. Treating long-term side effects and late effects is an important part of survivorship care. Learn more by reading the Follow-up Care section of this guide or talking with your doctor.

Coping with emotional and social effects

You can have emotional and social effects as well as physical effects after a brain tumor diagnosis. This may include dealing with difficult emotions, such as anxiety or anger, or managing your stress level. Sometimes, patients have problems expressing how they feel to their loved ones, or people don’t know what to say in return.

Patients and their families are encouraged to share their feelings with a member of their health care team. You can also find coping strategies for emotional and social effects in a separate section of this website. This section includes many resources for finding support and information to meet your needs.

Coping with financial effects

Treatment for a brain tumor can be expensive. It is often a big source of stress and anxiety for patients and their families. In addition to treatment costs, many people find they have extra, unplanned expenses related to their care. For some people, the high cost stops them from following or completing their treatment plan. This can put their health at risk and may lead to higher costs in the future. Learn more about managing financial considerations, in a separate part of this website.

Caring for a loved one with a brain tumor

Family members and friends often play an important role in taking care of a person with a brain tumor. This is called being a caregiver. Caregivers can provide physical, practical, and emotional support to the patient, even if they live far away.

Caregivers may have a range of responsibilities on a daily or as-needed basis. Below are some of the responsibilities caregivers take care of:

  • Providing support and encouragement

  • Giving medications

  • Helping manage symptoms and side effects of the tumor and treatment

  • Coordinating medical appointments

  • Providing a ride to appointments

  • Assisting with meals

  • Helping with household chores

  • Handling insurance and billing issues

  • Anticipating changes in mood, personality, and thinking and knowing how to best cope with these changes

Learn more about caregiving.

Talking with your health care team about side effects

Before starting treatment, talk with your doctor about possible side effects. Ask:

  • Which side effects are most likely?

  • When are they are likely to happen?

  • What can we do to prevent or relieve them?

Be sure to tell your health care team about any side effects that happen during treatment and afterward, too. Tell them even if you don’t think the side effects are serious. This discussion should include physical, emotional, and social effects.

Also, ask how much care you may need at home and with daily tasks during and after treatment. This can help you make a caregiving plan.

The next section in this guide is Follow-up Care. It explains the importance of check-ups after treatment for a brain tumor is finished. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Brain Tumor - Follow-Up Care

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about your medical care after treatment for a brain tumor is completed, and why this follow-up care is important. To see other pages, use the menu.

Care for people diagnosed with a brain tumor doesn’t end when active treatment has finished. Your health care team will continue to check to make sure the tumor has not returned, manage any side effects, and monitor your overall health. This is called follow-up care.

Your follow-up care may include regular physical examinations, medical tests, or both. Doctors want to keep track of your recovery in the months and years ahead.

Learn more about the importance of follow-up care.

Watching for recurrence

One goal of follow-up care is to check for a recurrence. A tumor recurs because small areas of tumor cells may remain undetected in the body. Over time, these cells may increase in number until they show up on test results or cause signs or symptoms.

During follow-up care, a doctor familiar with your medical history can give you personalized information about your risk of recurrence. Your doctor will also ask specific questions about your health. Some people may have blood tests or imaging tests as part of regular follow-up care, but testing recommendations depend on several factors including the type and grade of tumor originally diagnosed and the types of treatment given.

Many brain tumors are very likely to recur, so you should be routinely monitored for new symptoms and with regular MRI scans. How often you schedule follow-up visits and have scans depends on the type of the tumor and other factors, so your health care team will talk with you about your exact schedule.

Managing long-term and late side effects

Most people expect to experience side effects when receiving treatment. However, it is often surprising to survivors that some side effects may linger beyond the treatment period. These are called long-term side effects. In addition, other side effects called late effects may develop months or even years afterwards. Long-term and late effects can include both physical and emotional changes.

Talk with your doctor about your risk of developing such side effects based on the type of tumor, your individual treatment plan, and your overall health. If you had a treatment known to cause specific late effects, you may also have certain physical examinations, scans, or blood tests to help find and manage them.

As described in previous sections, a brain tumor and its treatment can affect how your brain functions and your overall well-being. For this reason, it is important for your health care team to evaluate your quality of life and your cognitive and functional abilities through specialized tests, typically given by a neuropsychologist. A neuropsychologist is a psychologist who has special training in the brain’s capacity and behaviors.

These evaluations could identify situations when specific rehabilitative therapies would be helpful. Options for rehabilitative therapy include:

  • Speech therapy

  • Occupational therapy

  • Counseling with a social worker

  • Medications to reduce fatigue or enhance memory

The goal of rehabilitation is to help people regain control over many aspects of their lives and remain as independent and productive as possible. Learn more about rehabilitation.

Keeping personal health records

You and your doctor should work together to develop a personalized follow-up care plan. Be sure to ask about any concerns you have about your future physical or emotional health. ASCO offers forms to help create a treatment summary to keep track of the treatment you received and develop a survivorship care plan once treatment is completed.

This is also a good time to decide who will lead your follow-up care. Some survivors continue to see their oncologist, while others transition back to the general care of their family doctor or another health care professional. This decision depends on several factors, including the type and grade of tumor, side effects, health insurance rules, and your personal preferences.

If a doctor who was not directly involved in your care will lead your follow-up care, be sure to share your treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms with him or her, as well as all future health care providers. Details about your treatment are very valuable to the health care professionals who will care for you throughout your lifetime.

The next section in this guide is Survivorship. It describes how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a brain tumor diagnosis. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - Survivorship

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will read about how to cope with challenges in everyday life after a brain tumor diagnosis. To see other pages, use the menu.

What is survivorship?

The word “survivorship” means different things to different people. Common definitions include:

  • Having no signs of the tumor after finishing treatment.

  • Living with, through, and beyond cancer. According to this definition, survivorship begins at diagnosis and includes people who continue to have treatment over the long term, to either reduce the risk of recurrence or to manage chronic disease.

Survivorship is one of the most complicated parts of having a brain tumor. This is because it is different for everyone.  

Survivors may experience a mixture of strong feelings, including joy, concern, relief, guilt, and fear. Some people say they appreciate life more after the diagnosis and have gained a greater acceptance of themselves. Others become very anxious about their health and uncertain of how to cope with everyday life.

Survivors may feel some stress when frequent visits to the health care team end following treatment. Often, relationships built with the health care team provide a sense of security during treatment, and people miss this source of support. This may be especially true as new worries and challenges surface over time, such as any late effects of treatment, emotional challenges including fear of recurrence, sexuality and fertility concerns, and financial and workplace issues.

Every survivor has individual concerns and challenges. With any challenge, a good first step is being able to recognize your fears and talk about them. Effective coping requires:

  • Understanding the challenge you are facing,

  • Thinking through solutions,

  • Asking for and allowing the support of others, and

  • Feeling comfortable with the course of action you choose.

Whenever possible, participation in a support group with other people diagnosed with brain tumors is highly encouraged. This allows you to talk with people who have had similar first-hand experiences. Other options for finding support include talking with a friend or member of your health care team, individual counseling, or asking for assistance at the learning resource center of the center where you received treatment.

Changing role of caregivers

Family members and friends may also go through periods of transition. A caregiver plays a very important role in supporting a person diagnosed with a brain tumor, providing physical, emotional, and practical care on a daily or as-needed basis. Many caregivers become focused on providing this support, especially if the treatment period lasts for many months or longer.

However, as treatment is completed, the caregiver's role often changes. Eventually, the need for caregiving related to the diagnosis will become much less or come to an end. Caregivers can learn more about adjusting to life after caregiving in this article.

A new perspective on your health

For many people, survivorship serves as a strong motivator to make positive lifestyle changes.

People recovering from a brain tumor are encouraged to follow established guidelines for good health, such as not smoking, limiting alcohol, eating well, and managing stress. Regular physical activity can help rebuild your strength and energy level. Your health care team can help you create an appropriate exercise plan based upon your needs, physical abilities, and fitness level. Learn more about making healthy lifestyle choices.

In addition, it is important to have recommended medical check-ups and tests (see Follow-up Care) to take care of your health. Talk with your doctor to develop a survivorship care plan that is best for your needs.

Looking for More Survivorship Resources?

For more information about survivorship, explore these related items. Please note these links will take you to other sections of Cancer.Net:

  • ASCO Answers Cancer Survivorship Guide: Get this 44-page booklet that helps people transition into life after treatment. It includes blank treatment summary and survivorship care plan forms. The booklet is available as a PDF, so it is easy to print out.

  • Cancer.Net Patient Education Video: View a short video led by an ASCO expert that provides information about what comes next after finishing treatment.

  • Survivorship Resources: Cancer.Net offers an entire area of this website with resources to help survivors, including for survivors in different age groups.

The next section offers Questions to Ask the Doctor to help start conversations with your health care team. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.  

Brain Tumor - Questions to Ask the Doctor

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some questions to ask your doctor or other members of your health care team, to help you better understand your diagnosis, treatment plan, and overall care. To see other pages, use the menu.

Talking often with the doctor is important to make informed decisions about your health care. These suggested questions are a starting point to help you learn more about your care and treatment. You are also encouraged to ask additional questions that are important to you. You may want to print this list and bring it to your next appointment, or download Cancer.Net’s free mobile app for an e-list and other interactive tools to manage your care.

Questions to ask after getting a diagnosis

  • What type of brain tumor do I have?

  • Is the tumor cancerous?

  • What is the tumor’s grade? What does this mean?

  • Can you explain my pathology report (laboratory test results) to me?

  • Will an experienced neuropathologist review my pathology slides?

  • Do you have reading material that would help me understand my disease?

  • Who will be leading my overall treatment?

  • Should I get a second opinion?

  • Do you attend expert meetings to discuss complicated tumor cases?

  • Are there brain tumor centers of excellence that you recommend I contact?

  • Does your practice include multidisciplinary care? What does this mean?

  • If I’m worried about managing the costs of medical care, who can help me?

  • Do you know of a local support group for people with brain tumors?

Questions to ask about choosing a treatment and managing side effects

  • What are my treatment options?

  • What clinical trials are available for me? Where are they located, and how do I find out more about them?

  • How many brain tumors do you treat each year?

  • What treatment plan do you recommend? Why?

  • What is the goal of each treatment? Is it to eliminate the tumor, help me feel better, or both?

  • Would any of these treatment options keep me from participating in a clinical trial in the future?

  • When should I start treatment?

  • Who will be part of my health care team, and what does each member do?

  • What are the possible side effects of each treatment, both in the short term and the long term?

  • How will this treatment affect my daily life? Will I be able to work, exercise, and perform my usual activities?

  • Could this treatment affect my sex life? If so, how and for how long?

  • Could this treatment affect my ability to become pregnant or have children? If so, should I talk with a fertility specialist before treatment begins?

  • What level of caregiving will I need during treatment and recovery?

  • Whom should I call for questions or problems?

Questions to ask about having surgery

  • What type of surgery will I have?

  • How long will the operation take?

  • How long will I be in the hospital?

  • Can you describe what my recovery from surgery will be like?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of having this surgery?

Questions to ask about having radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy

  • What type of treatment is recommended?

  • What is the goal of this treatment?

  • How long will it take to give this treatment?

  • What side effects can I expect during treatment?

  • What are the possible long-term effects of having this treatment?

  • What can be done to relieve the side effects?

Questions to ask about planning follow-up care

  • What is the chance that the tumor will come back? Should I watch for specific signs or symptoms?

  • What long-term side effects or late effects are possible based on the treatment I received?

  • After treatment, what follow-up tests will I need, and how often will I need them?

  • How do I get a treatment summary and survivorship care plan to keep in my personal records?

  • Who will be leading my follow-up care?

  • What survivorship support services are available to me? To my family?

The next section in this guide is Additional Resources. It offers some more resources on this website beyond this guide that may be helpful to you. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.

Brain Tumor - Additional Resources

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some helpful links to other areas of Cancer.Net that provide information about medical care and treatment. This is the final page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Brain Tumors. To go back and review other pages, use the menu.

Cancer.Net includes many other sections about the medical and emotional aspects of a brain tumor, both for the person diagnosed and their family members and friends. This website is meant to be a resource for you and your loved ones from the time of diagnosis, through treatment, and beyond.

Beyond this guide, here are a few links to help you explore other parts of Cancer.Net:

This is the end of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Brain Tumors. Use the menu to select another section to continue reading this guide.