Our brain and spinal cord are considered to be an integral part of our nervous system. Hence, this type of cancer is generally known as the Central nervous system tumour.
Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer can occur in both children and adults. However, the type of cancer formed can differ in adults and children. They can be formed in different areas, can have different cell types, and can even have different treatments and outlooks.
Types of Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer in Adults
There are mainly two types of brain and spinal cord cancer:
Primary Brain (or spinal cord) tumours - Cancer that begins in either the brain or spinal cord is known as primary brain (or spinal cord) tumours.
Secondary brain (or spinal cord) tumours - Also known as metastatic cancer, this type of tumour begins in another part of the body and spreads to either the brain or the spinal cord.
In adults, secondary brain (or spinal cord) tumours are more commonly diagnosed as compared to the primary brain (or spinal cord) tumour.
Tumours that begin in the brain or spinal cord, unlike malignancies that begin in other regions of the body, eventually spread to different organs of the body. Whereas, benign (non-cancerous)brain or spinal cord tumours are uncommon. However, they can still cause harm by spreading and multiplying in surrounding places, where they can kill normal brain tissue. Most brain or spinal cord tumours will continue to develop and become life-threatening unless they are removed or destroyed.
Types of Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer in Children
A few types of brain and spinal cord cancer in children can include:
Astrocytomas refer to tumours that begin in astrocytes, which is a type of glial cell that supports and feeds nerve cells.
This type of tumour begins in the brain cells known as oligodendrocytes. They are grade 2 tumours that grow slowly. However, in certain cases, these tumours can spread to nearby brain cell tissues which cannot be removed even with surgery.
Ependymomas account for about 5% of all brain tumours in children. These tumours begin in the ependymal cells that line the spinal cord's ventricles or central canal.
Other types of cancers that can develop in children can include:
Brain Stem Gliomas
Mixed glial and neuronal tumours
Choroid plexus tumours
General Symptoms of Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer
Tumours in any area of the brain may cause an increase in intracranial pressure (refers to the pressure in the skull). This can be caused by the swelling in the brain, the growth of the tumour, or a restriction in the passage of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Increased blood pressure can cause a variety of symptoms, including:
Behaviour or personality changes
Drowsiness; and sometimes even coma
Because the brain controls the functions of various organs, including hormones, brain tumours can produce a variety of other symptoms which are not included here.
Having one or more of any of the given symptoms does not always imply that you have a brain or spinal cord tumour. Instead, all of these symptoms could be caused by some other condition. Still, if you have any of these symptoms, especially if they don't go away or worsen over time, contact your doctor immediately.
General Diagnosis of Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer
The diagnosis of brain and spinal cord cancer can include
Physical Exam and Health History
The doctor will take an examination of the body to look for general signs of health, including the detection of disease-related signs such as tumours or anything else that appears strange. A history of the patient's health habits, as well as previous diseases and treatments, will also be taken.
This exam involves questions and tests to check for spinal cord, brain, and nerve function. The exam will examine the mental status of a person including his/her coordination, ability to walk normally, and looking if the sense, muscles, and reflexes work properly.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) with gadolinium
MRI is a process that uses radio waves and magnets to gain detailed pictures of the brain and spinal cord. A substance known as gadolinium is inserted into the vein in this process. The role of gadolinium is to collect around the cancer cells to show a brighter picture.
Serum tumour marker test
This refers to a process where blood samples of the patient are examined to measure substances that are released into the blood by tissues, organs, or tumour cells in the body.
General Treatment of Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer
The treatment for brain and spinal cord cancer depends on various factors such as the size, type, and stage of the tumour. Some of the general treatments for children and adults can include:
One of the first treatments for any type of cancer would be surgery to remove the tumour from the body. Neurosurgery refers to the surgery that is done on the nervous system.
Radiation Therapy refers to the use of high-energy beams, such as protons or X-rays, to kill the existing cancer cells and prevent them from growing or multiplying. This process can even help to shrink the tumour mass. Different types of radiation therapy can be done based on the size, age, and stage of the tumour. These include:
Whole Brain Radiation
Conventional External Beam Radiation
3D-CRT (Three-dimensional Conformal Radiotherapy)
IMRT (Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy)
Proton Beam Therapy
This process is a one-time treatment. In Radiosurgery, the doctor will use multiple sharp-focused radiation beams aimed at the tumour in the brain or spine from various angles. Just like radiation therapy, this process will help to stop the growth of the tumour. It is generally used to treat inaccessible tumours. There are two types of radiosurgery:
LINAC (Linear-Accelerated Radiosurgery)
Chemotherapy refers to the use of powerful drugs that can either be injected or taken orally to kill cancer cells and prevent them from growing or multiplying.
This refers to the cancer treatment that uses certain kinds of drugs to target specific proteins and genes that are a part of the tumour.
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