Thumbnail image of: Brain, Cross Section: Illustration
Thumbnail image of: Brain, Side View: Illustration

Cancer of the Brain and Nervous System

What is cancer of the brain and nervous system?

Cancer of the brain and nervous system is an abnormal growth of cells that form tumors in brain cells, spinal cord cells, nerve cells, or cells that support the brain and spinal cord (called glial cells). If the cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it is still brain or nervous system cancer, and is called metastatic brain and nervous system cancer.

There are different types and stages of brain and nervous system cancer based on what kind of cancer cells are found, where the tumor started and where it has spread. Knowing your type and stage of brain and nervous system cancer you have helps your healthcare provider decide on the best treatment plan for you. It is important to diagnose and treat brain and nervous system cancer as soon as possible. The main goals of treatment are to kill the tumor cells, prevent a localized cancer from spreading, and prevent metastatic cancer from spreading more than it already has.

The exact cause of cancer of the brain and nervous system is not known. However, there are several things that increase your risk for these types of cancers. These include inherited cancer genes, previous radiation to the brain or spinal cord, a family history of certain cancers, or immune system problems.

What can I expect in the hospital?

Several things may be done while you are in the hospital to monitor, test, and treat your condition. They include:


  • You will be checked often by the hospital staff.
  • Your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature will be checked regularly.
  • Your fluid intake may be monitored closely by keeping track of everything you eat and drink and any IV fluids you receive.
  • Your fluid output may be monitored closely by keeping track of the amount of urine and bowel movements you produce.
  • Your strength, range of motion, and ability to feel pain will be checked regularly.


Testing may include:

  • Neurologic examination: Testing to check your strength, sensation, balance, reflexes, and memory
  • Blood, urine, or other tests to monitor how well your organs are functioning
  • Tests to look for abnormalities in brain and spinal cord, which may include:
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan: A series of X-rays taken from different angles and arranged by a computer to show thin cross sections of the brain and nervous system
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A powerful magnetic field and radio waves are used to take pictures from different angles to show thin cross sections of the brain and nervous system
    • A biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of tissue to help make a diagnosis. This can be done in one of two ways:
      • Needle biopsy (stereotactic biopsy): The surgeon may make a small cut in your scalp and put a small hole in the skull and insert a needle into the tumor to take a sample of tissue. The surgeon will use a CT scan or MRI to help guide the needle into the tumor.
      • Surgical biopsy (open biopsy or craniotomy): The surgeon will make a cut in your scalp and remove a section of the skull to remove all or part the tumor. The tissue that is removed is sent to the lab to help make a diagnosis.
    • Angiography: A series of X-rays taken after your healthcare provider injects a special dye into your blood vessels, to look at the blood supply to the tumor. This may be done with an MRI (called magnetic resonance angiography or MRA) or a CT scan (called computerized tomographic angiography or CTA).
    • Lumbar puncture: A test, also called a spinal tap, which uses a needle to get a sample of fluid from the area around your spinal cord to check for cancer cells in your brain or spinal fluid.
  • Tests to check if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, including:
    • Blood tests to check for certain hormones, proteins, or chemicals that may be high if you have cancer
    • Bone X-rays: Pictures of your bones to check for cancer
    • Chest X-ray: Pictures of the inside of your chest to check for cancer
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: A series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows areas where the radioactive material is being absorbed.


The treatment for cancer of the brain and nervous system depends on your symptoms, how well you respond to treatment, your overall health, and any complications you may have. Your chance of cure depends on how far the cancer has advanced. You may need to make lifestyle changes to stay as healthy as possible

  • You will have a small tube (IV catheter) inserted into a vein in your hand or arm. This will allow for medicine to be given directly into your blood and to give you fluids, if needed.
  • You may need surgery to treat your cancer. Surgery may include:
    • Craniotomy: Surgery to remove all or part of the tumor
    • Lymph node dissection: Surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck and head to check if the cancer has spread. It also allows the pathologist to determine the stage of the cancer accurately. This will allow your healthcare providers to determine if you need more treatment after you recover from surgery.
    • Shunt placement: Surgery to place a thin, flexible tube (shunt) under the skin from the brain to the abdomen to drain extra brain fluid and prevent pressure in the skull
    • Chemotherapy catheter placement (ventricular access catheter): Surgery to place a thin, flexible tube (catheter) under the skin in the scalp and into the brain to give medicine to kill cancer cells at the tumor site
  • Treatments may include:
    • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.
    • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells.
  • Your provider may also prescribe medicine to:
    • Treat pain
    • Treat or prevent an infection
    • Treat or prevent anemia, which means you have too few red blood cells to carry enough oxygen to your body. Anemia may be caused by your cancer, your treatment, or other problems.
    • Reduce swelling in the brain
    • Treat or prevent side effects, such as nausea or constipation, from other treatments
    • Help your immune system fight cancer
  • You may need physical or occupational therapy to help you adjust to problems you may have from the brain tissue or nerve cells that were affected by the tumor or surgery. Most rehabilitation programs include:
    • Physical therapy to help you regain muscle strength and teach you ways to move safely
    • Occupational therapy to help you relearn ways to do the tasks that you previously did
    • Speech therapy to help you if you have problems with swallowing, speaking, or understanding words

What can I do to help?

  • You will need to tell your healthcare team if you have new or worsening:
    • Trouble swallowing
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from your surgical wound
    • Fever, chills, or muscle aches
    • Headache
    • Tiredness
    • Dizziness or lightheadedness
    • Loss of balance or coordination
    • Change in vision, such as double vision, blurred vision, or trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
    • Depression
    • Irritability or personality changes
    • Trouble speaking or understanding
    • Trouble thinking clearly or remembering
    • Seizure
  • Ask questions about any medicine, treatment, or information that you do not understand.

How long will I be in the hospital?

How long you stay in the hospital depends on many factors. The average amount of time to stay in the hospital with cancer of the brain and nervous system is 5 to 7 days.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-12-19
Last reviewed: 2014-12-18
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

Patient Portal

Our Patient Portal provides safe and secure online access to better communicate with your Tufts Medical Center Community Care doctor. This easy-to-use web tool is a convenient way to book appointments, request referrals, renew prescriptions, view medical records/test results and communicate with your healthcare provider from the privacy of your own computer.


Your privacy is important to us. Learn more about ourwebsite privacy policy. X