Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer | Cancer


Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer

Our skilled teams at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center offer specialized care for tumors of the brain and spinal cord. We blend personalized care and leading-edge treatments to deliver the best possible outcomes.

Medically reviewed by Matthew Bobinski, M.D. on July 20, 2023.

Male health care provider showing patient image of a spine on a computer screen

Advanced Therapies and Clinical Trials

Specialists at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center use extensive expertise to treat the most complex brain and spinal cord cancers. These include:

  • Astrocytomas are the most common brain tumor in adults and usually start in the cerebrum. 
  • Ependymomas start in the passageways that contain cerebrospinal fluid. 
  • Glioblastomas are aggressive tumors, generally considered the deadliest brain cancer. 
  • Oligodendrogliomas are uncommon tumors that rarely spread outside the brain or spinal cord and have better prognosis than other brain tumors.

Our advanced therapies and clinical trials mean we can often help people who have been told they’re out of treatment options. At every stage of care, we focus on your needs and quality of life.


What Are Brain and Spinal Cord Cancers?

Central nervous system (CNS) cancers develop in your brain or spinal cord. These tumors can also be benign (noncancerous). Both noncancerous and cancerous CNS tumors may affect vital functions, such as thought, memory and movement.

Tumors can form in any part of the CNS:

  • Brain stem: the bridge between your brain and spinal cord that controls breathing, heat rate and other involuntary functions.
  • Cerebellum: the area of the brain that controls balance, walking and muscle movements.
  • Cerebrum: the largest part of the brain that controls reasoning, speech, sensation and vision.
  • Meninges: the three layers of membranes (thin tissues) that protect your brain and spinal cord.
  • Spinal cord: a tube of nerve tissue that transmits signals between your brain and the rest of your body (peripheral nervous system).

Symptoms of Brain Tumors and Spinal Cord Tumors

General symptoms of CNS tumors are often the result of a tumor putting pressure on your brain or spinal cord. Other symptoms are specific to the location of your tumor. For example, a tumor in your cerebrum may affect your speech. A tumor near your spinal cord can lead to problems with coordination and muscle movement.

Common Symptoms

General symptoms may include:

  • Behavior and personality changes
  • Headaches that get worse or don’t go away
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Vision, hearing or sensory problems

Emergency Symptoms

Seek immediate medication attention if you have:

  • Difficulty speaking or understanding others
  • Multiple seizures or a seizure that lasts longer than five minutes
  • Numbness in your face, legs or arms
  • Problems walking or moving your muscles
  • Severe headache
  • Trouble seeing

Causes and Risk Factors of Brain Tumors and Spinal Cord Tumors

Most CNS cancers in adults are secondary tumors. Secondary tumors spread to the brain or spinal cord from cancer elsewhere in the body, such as the breast or lungs. Primary CNS cancers start in the brain or spinal cord.

Experts aren’t sure what causes CNS tumors. They likely occur due to abnormal changes (mutations) in certain genes, but it's unclear what causes these changes. Only about 5% of CNS tumors are thought to be hereditary (linked to abnormal genes passed down through families).

Some risk factors increase your chances of developing a brain or spinal cord tumor, including:


You can develop a CNS tumor at any age. Children are more likely to develop primary tumors, and older adults (most often over age 65) are more likely to develop secondary tumors.

Exposure to Radiation

Exposure to radiation (high-powered beams of energy), usually from past radiation therapy for cancer, increases your risk of CNS tumors. Radiation exposure from imaging exams such as X-rays and CT scans is extremely low risk.

Family History and Genetics

A small percentage of brain tumors may be hereditary, meaning they’re linked to abnormal genes or diseases passed down through families.


Most brain and spinal cord tumors are more common in men. But meningiomas (tumors in the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord) are more common in women.

Other Risk Factors

Research is ongoing about links between CNS tumors and certain viruses, chemicals, cell phone use and other potential risk factors.


Diagnosing Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, we use the most advanced technology to detect and diagnose brain and spinal cord tumors as early as possible. Our state-of-the-art neuroimaging lab means all the tests you need are in one place.

Neuro-oncologists, neuroradiologists and neuropathologists work together to streamline the diagnostic process. Whenever possible, we schedule your exams in as few visits as possible, so you can focus on living your life.

Your physician may recommend:  

  • Biopsy: A biopsy is the only way to confirm brain or spinal cord cancer. We take a small sample of tissue from the tumor and examine it under a microscope. For hard-to-reach tumors, we do an MRI-guided stereotactic needle biopsy.  
  • CT scan: A CT scan uses X-rays to create multidimensional views of your head and spine. CT scans usually show tumors in the skull or spinal bones more clearly than an MRI.   
  • MRI: An MRI is the most common imaging exam used to detect CNS cancer. This test uses radio waves (not radiation) to create highly detailed pictures of your brain and spinal cord. We also use functional MRI scans to map brain activity and plan surgery.  
  • PET scan: During a PET scan, we inject a small amount of a radioactive substance into a vein. Cancer cells absorb the substance, so tumors show up on scans. PET scans are useful for showing us how fast cancer cells are growing and dividing.  

CNS Tumor Treatments at UC Davis Health

UC Davis has Comprehensive Cancer Center designation by the National Cancer Institute. This distinction means we adhere to the highest standards in safety and patient care – and deliver excellent outcomes.

We are uniquely qualified to care for people with brain or spinal cord tumors at every age and stage of life. Our robust pediatric cancer care program connects children with leading pediatric oncologists and the latest clinical trials. People with brain and spinal cord tumors receive expert care at our Department of Neurological Surgery.

Our state-of-the-art treatments for CNS cancers include:

Spine and Brain Tumor Surgery

Spine and brain tumor surgery is the most common treatment for CNS cancers. If the tumor is small, surgery may be the only treatment you need.

We use the most advanced techniques to make your procedure as safe and precise as possible, such as:

  • Awake craniotomy: We do brain surgery while you’re awake to ensure we preserve areas of your brain that control vital functions, such as speech and movement.
  • Imaging-guided neuronavigation: This technology works like a GPS system to help us map and direct your surgery. Surgeons see real-time images of your brain during surgery, so they avoid damaging healthy tissue.
  • Minimally invasive approach: Whenever possible, we do surgery through very small incisions, or through your nose or mouth, to reduce scarring and trauma. You recover faster and with less pain.  
Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to shrink or destroy tumors. You may have radiation therapy alone or in combination with surgery. At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, our radiation treatments include:

  • Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS): SRS focuses multiple beams of radiation on the tumor in a single treatment. This approach reduces radiation exposure to other areas of your brain and spine. At UC Davis, we specialize in the Gamma Knife procedure for benign and cancerous brain tumors.
  • Three-dimensional conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT): We use CT scans or MRIs to create 3D images of your brain. The images help us plan your radiation treatment so it precisely targets the size and shape of the tumor.
  • Volumetric modulated arc therapy (VMAT): We use a rotating machine called a linear accelerator to deliver varying doses of radiation to a tumor from many different angles. VMAT can treat large tumors in fewer sessions than traditional radiation therapy.

Other Treatments for Brain and Spine Tumors

Brain and spine cancer treatments are highly customized to the tumor type and location, as well as your age, health and treatment goals. We draw on many treatments to make the best care plan for your needs, including:

  • Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy works on specific proteins and genes in different types of tumors.
  • Tumor treating fields use mild electrical currents, delivered through a noninvasive device, to disrupt tumor growth. 


Preventing Brain and Spinal Cord Cancer

There’s no proven way to prevent spinal cord or brain tumors. Limiting radiation exposure, especially in children, may reduce their risk of developing CNS tumors as adults.

Lifestyle changes, such as not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight, may reduce your risk of some cancers.

"Can Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children Be Prevented?" American Cancer Society,

10-year survival rate is more than

30%For a cancerous brain or spinal cord tumor

Chance of developing primary brain or spinal cord tumors

1%In a person’s lifetime

Source: American Society of Clinical Oncology: Brain Tumor Statistics

Request an Appointment

Our cancer specialists provide thorough evaluations and personalized treatment plans. Learn more about how to make an appointment at UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.



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