Cancer Types

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Brain and Central Nervous System Cancers

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Brain and Spine Cancer Definitions and Symptoms

Tumors in the brain and spinal cord are called central nervous system (CNS) tumors. These tumors occur when abnormal cells form in any part of the brain or spine area. A tumor may be benign, meaning it does not have cancer cells, or malignant, meaning cancer is present. A tumor that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the brain or the spinal cord is called a metastatic CNS tumor. The cause for most brain and spine cancers is not known,

If cancer has moved beyond the location in the body where it began, doctors say it has metastasized.  The brain and spine are two common sites of metastases.

Both benign and malignant tumors cause symptoms and need treatment. Symptoms are not the same for everyone. They depend on where a tumor is and how large it is.

Brain tumor symptoms can include:

  • Morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Vision, hearing, and speech problems
  • Loss of appetite
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in personality, mood, ability to focus, or behavior
  • Weakness, loss of balance, and trouble walking
  • Unusual sleepiness

Spinal cord tumor symptoms can include:

  • Back pain or pain that spreads from the back towards the arms or legs
  • A change in bowel habits or trouble urinating
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Trouble walking

Benign tumors grow and press on nearby areas. They rarely spread into other tissues, but sometimes grow back in the same place.

Malignant, or cancerous, tumors cause most of their symptoms by creating swelling (edema) in the area around the tumor. This squeezes against other normal tissue. When this occurs with brain tumors, that area of the brain may not work normally.

Content adapted from the website of the National Cancer Institute (

There are many different factors that affect what a person’s treatment and likelihood of a cure will be. The experts at UMMC are highly experienced in treating brain and spine cancers and give patients advanced care, including genetic testing and access to clinical trials, for the best possible result.

Brain and spine cancers we treat:

Brain and spine cancer stages

Before treatment begins, the team confirms what type of brain or CNS cancer is present. They determine the cancer’s stage, and how far it has spread within the body. If a tumor is found, doctors will determine its grade, or how abnormal the cells look, and how quickly it tends to grow. We routinely send tumor tissue for genetic study to pinpoint the best treatment plan.

About our cancer doctors

Doctors on the brain and spine cancer team are part of the UMMC Cancer Center and Research Institute. It includes doctors and other clinical staff in a broad range of specialties such as neurosurgeons, neurologists, radiation oncologists, neuro oncologists, neuroradiologists, pathologists, genetic counselors, rehabilitation specialists, nurses, social workers, dietitians, and others.

The brain and spine team at UMMC includes two medical neuro oncologists. These cancer doctors have special training in diagnosing and treating brain tumors and other tumors of the nervous system.

Also on staff are neuropsychologists. These specialists evaluate how a person’s brain cancer and/or treatment may be impacting their ability to process information. They can make recommendations to improve a cancer patient’s quality of life during treatment and recovery.

Working together, our team can look at each patient’s case from every angle. They regularly meet as a group to review imaging, pathology, and other matters unique to each patient. They consider all aspects of a patient’s condition along with any personal matters that may impact treatment.

The team has experience with unusual and complex cases, including advanced cancers. Additionally, they follow National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines in developing treatment plans.

This team also includes a coordinator who helps guide patients through the ins and outs of cancer treatment. This includes making arrangements for each patient’s first visit with the staff. We are able to see new patients in our neuro oncology clinic within a week of a request for an appointment.

Treatment options

UMMC offers leading-edge technology and treatment for brain and spine cancers, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and clinical trials when appropriate. We also have the only physician in the state using electric field therapy to treat glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer.

Our specialists perform awake craniotomies, also called awake brain surgery. This highly advanced procedure benefits some patients who have brain tumors. With careful anesthesia to block pain, a patient is awakened during surgery to respond to questions and instructions from the surgeon. This allows the surgeon to remove the maximum amount of cancer with the least possible harm to a patient’s ability to speak, move, hear, see, and perform other normal functions. This procedure is not an option for everyone. Patients must be able to lie still for several hours and actively participate during the surgery.

We routinely provide genetic testing to determine if precision medicine exists for a patient’s type of cancer. Precision medicine is based on patient’s genetic makeup, environmental exposures and lifestyle. For genetic testing, we use next generation sequencing which allows for faster processing.  

In addition to traditional treatment options, UMMC offers clinical trials for patients with brain tumors. We are the only hospital in Mississippi offering clinical trials for management of brain and spine cancers. Here are our currently available clinical trials for brain and spine cancers.

For all patients, we provide complete management plans that we fully explain. We want our patients and their caregivers to completely understand every part of the care plan. We provide updates to the plan as treatment continues to make sure patients stay informed about their care.

Support services

Cancer can take an emotional toll on patients and their families. Our job is to help everyone through it. Whether the need is financial assistance or advice, help with a wig fitting, counseling or a support group, or any other social or medical services, our nurse coordinator can quickly connect patients to the care they need.

In addition to our programs, there are several helpful online support groups for people being treated for brain cancer:

Make an appointment

For appointments or questions, call our brain and spine cancer coordinator at (601) 984-5500.

The coordinator is also available to answer questions prior to a patient’s first visit. We'll work to schedule all appointments at the same time to make care easier and more convenient. We offer most services at the Cancer Center and Research Institute in the Jackson Medical Mall, but we also provide cancer care on the main campus at University Hospital and the University Physicians Pavilion.

Types of brain and spine cancers

Definitions provided by the website of the National Cancer Institute (

Brain tumors

Tumors that start in the brain are called primary brain tumors. Primary brain tumors may spread to other parts of the brain. They rarely spread to other parts of the body. 

Often, tumors found in the brain have started somewhere else in the body and spread to one or more parts of the brain. These are called metastatic brain tumors (or brain metastases). Metastatic brain tumors are more common than primary brain tumors.

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Central nervous system metastases

Cancer that has spread from the original (primary) tumor to the central nervous system (CNS). Also called CNS metastasis.

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Central nervous system tumors

A tumor of the central nervous system, including brain stem glioma, craniopharyngioma, medulloblastoma, and meningioma. Also called CNS tumor.

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Glioblastoma multiforme

A fast-growing type of central nervous system tumor that forms from glial (supportive) tissue of the brain and spinal cord and has cells that look very different from normal cells. Glioblastoma multiforme usually occurs in adults and affects the brain more often than the spinal cord. Also called GBM, glioblastoma, and grade IV astrocytoma.

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A type of slow-growing tumor that forms in the meninges (thin layers of tissue that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord). Meningiomas usually occur in adults.

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Skull base cancer

These tumors may sit just below the skull, in the area behind the eyes and nasal cavity. Sometimes they form in the area where the spinal cord, blood vessels, and nerves enter the brain. Not all tumors in this area are malignant, but having a tumor in this space can still cause some major health problems.

Cancers found at the base of the skull are extremely rare. These cancers include many which may start elsewhere in the head and grow toward the base of the skull where nerves and major blood vessels enter the brain. Or they may skim along the skull base and toward the optic nerves (behind the eyes) or temporal bone (on the side of the skull). This may also include brain cancers that grow downward. 

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Spinal cord tumors

The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that runs from the brain stem down the center of the back. Spinal cord nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body, such as a message from the brain to cause muscles to move or a message from the skin to the brain to feel touch. Primary tumors of the spinal cord are exceptionally rare. Metastases to the spine with secondary compression of the spinal cord are, unfortunately, common.

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