Brain and spinal cord tumours

Understanding your diagnosis

Brain and spinal cord tumours

Understanding your diagnosis

Your specialist gets a lot of information about your brain tumour from your test results.

Your specialist uses this information to explain how the tumour could affect you in the future (your prognosis), and what your treatment options are. 

What you need to know

About primary brain and spinal cord tumours

Primary brain and spinal cord tumours start in the brain or spinal cord.

They are not the same as secondary brain and spinal cord tumours, also known as metastases. These occur when cancer from another part of the body spreads to the brain or spinal cord. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the brain is metastatic breast cancer and not a primary brain tumour.

Things that affect how a primary brain and spinal cord tumour is likely to behave include:

  • the type of cells it started in (tumour type)
  • whether it is likely to grow and spread (tumour grade)
  • the location within the brain or spinal cord.
  • the person’s age
  • the symptoms they have
  • whether a gene mutation is identified in the tumour
  • whether the tumour can be removed by surgery.

Types of primary brain and spinal cord tumours

There are many types of brain and spinal cord tumours, which are named after the type of cells the tumour started in.

Many brain and spinal cord tumours are gliomas, which start in glial cells.

Types of glioma include:

  • astrocytoma – including glioblastoma multiforme (GBM)
  • oligodendroglioma
  • ependymoma.

Other non-glioma tumours include:

  • meningioma
  • medulloblastoma
  • pituitary gland tumour
  • schwannoma.
The way brain and spinal cord tumours are described and named can be confusing. Ask your doctor to explain what type of tumour you have, and anything else you should know about it.

Brain and spinal cord tumour grade

The grade of a tumour is based on how abnormal the cells look under a microscope, and how quickly they are growing and dividing. This information shows how likely the tumour is to grow and spread.

Brain and spinal cord tumours do not usually spread to other parts of the body, but they can spread to other areas of the brain and spinal cord.

Brain and spinal cord tumours are divided into 4 grades:

Grade

Cell appearance

Tumour behaviour

I

  • almost normal
  • growing and dividing slowly
  • grows slowly
  • unlikely to spread
  • can often be cured by surgery if it can be completely removed

II

  • slightly abnormal
  • growing and dividing slowly, but faster than Grade I
  • usually grows slowly
  • may grow into nearby brain tissue.
  • may come back after treatment
  • may become a higher grade tumour

III

  • more abnormal
  • growing and dividing quickly
  • can grow quickly
  • can invade nearby tissue.
  • may come back after treatment
  • may become a higher grade tumour
  • more likely to need other treatments  as well as surgery

IV

  • very abnormal
  • growing and dividing very quickly
  • there is also blood vessel growth and areas of dead cells (necrosis)
  • the fastest growing tumours
  • often spread to other parts of the brain or spinal cord
  • often come back after treatment.
  • can be treated but is unlikely to be cured

Low-grade tumours may sometimes be described as benign (non-cancerous) tumours, and high-grade tumours can be described as malignant (cancerous) tumours. However, these descriptions are not as clear cut for brain and spinal cord tumours as they are for tumours in other parts of the body.

What to ask or talk about

Talking about prognosis

Prognosis means what is likely to happen to you in the future because of your cancer. You may find it hard to talk about prognosis but it can help you make decisions about the treatment and care you want.

Everyone’s cancer is different, and everyone responds differently to treatment. Because of this, doctors can’t tell you exactly what will happen to you. Instead, they can give you the best information they have about what to expect.

Doctors work out prognosis based on statistics. These show what happens in large groups of people with cancer. They cannot predict what will happen to you or any other individual person. 

Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Next steps

Treatment planning

Your specialist will share information about you and your cancer with a multidisciplinary team (MDT) to decide the best treatment options for you.

You may need more than one type of treatment or have a choice of treatments. You may also need to see other specialists during treatment planning.

Dealing with your diagnosis

Getting a cancer diagnosis is very distressing for the person with cancer, and their carers, family and friends. Different people react in different ways. They can be upset and angry or just in shock. Many people find it difficult to take in all the information and understand what it will mean for them.

The situation can be especially difficult for people who get a diagnosis of advanced cancer. 

If you need to speak to someone about your diagnosis, you can call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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