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Brain Tumors

A brain tumor is a mass of cells growing unnecessarily or abnormally in the brain. These tumors can be benign or malignant.

Benign tumors are made up of slow growing cells that rarely spread and that have a distinct border. Benign tumors can be life-threatening if they are located in a vital area.

Malignant tumors grow rapidly and are life-threatening. They can spread to other parts of the body, destroying healthy tissue.

If the tumor starts in the brain, it is known as a primary brain tumor, such as glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor, astrocytoma and medulloblastoma.

If cancer has started elsewhere in the body and spread to the brain, then it is known as a metastatic brain tumor.

More than 185,000 people are diagnosed each year with brain tumors. Of that number, about 35,000 have primary brain tumors and about 150,000 have metastatic brain tumors.

About 13,000 people die of brain tumors each year in the United States.


Because symptoms can be vague and similar to other diseases, brain tumors can be difficult to diagnose.

Many brain tumor symptoms are related to pressure inside the brain caused by the growing tumor. Other symptoms could be related to the location, type and size of the tumor.

A common symptom is a headache, usually one that comes and goes, often occurring 1st thing in the morning.

Seizures may occur because of the tumor’s location. Mental changes are another symptom that can vary from memory, speech and concentration changes to severe alterations of personality.

Other symptoms can include nausea and vomiting, vision problems, drowsiness, sensory loss, walking or coordination problems and numbness and tingling.


In addition to a basic medical history, the doctor will do a neurological examination that may lead to additional testing.

Those tests can include scans such as computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), both of which highlight abnormalities and can also be repeated to monitor progress during treatment.

Hemodynamic imaging can be used to scan spinal cord tumors and to track blood flow in the brain.

In addition, a biopsy may be taken for testing of the tissue.


Treatment varies, depending on the type, size and location of the brain tumor. A combination of therapies may be involved.

Surgery may be done to remove the tumor while minimizing impact on healthy tissue in the brain. Radiation and chemotherapy also are part of treatment, both aimed at killing cancer cells.

New technology is helping in the precise treatment of tumors, including the use of lasers and ultrasound to make tumor removal more precise. This includes the Gamma Knife®, which shoots radiation beams the precise size and shape of the tumor.


Brain tumor research is attacking the problems from numerous angles, including experimental methods of delivering cancer fighting drugs to the tumors, gene therapy, drugs that cut off a tumor’s blood supply and improving scans, lasers and other techniques to make them more precise and effective.

Genetic factors are being studied, as well as growth factors like the movement of tumor cells and the ways in which they increase their blood supply. Hereditary and environmental factors are being studied, as well.

Wake Forest Baptist Approach

At Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, therapy of brain tumors is available through a collaboration of the Departments of Radiation Oncology, Medical Oncology and Neurosurgery.

Advanced radiologic techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) are available, as well as consultations by Neuropathologists.

Wake Forest Baptist is part of the major national brain tumor therapy consortia including the Adult Brain Tumor Consortium (ABT) and the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG). We offer a wide variety of protocols for brain tumor therapy sponsored by these groups and developed internally, including  exciting new drugs such as gene therapy, radiation sensitizers and minimally-toxic agents.

The Neurosurgery Department specializes in the surgical techniques developed to allow safe removal of brain tumors including microsurgery and stereotactic radiosurgery. Minimally invasive techniques for the treatment and biopsy of brain tumors are also available.

The Medical Center is one of the few centers in the world to offer both the Gamma Knife, which uses radiation to destroy tumors, vascular malformations and brain lesions with pinpoint accuracy, and the linear accelerator-based radiosurgery system (LINAC-Scalpel), used to treat larger lesions.

Wake Forest's School of Medicine is also active in basic research devoted to understanding the causes and advancing therapy of brain tumors.

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Last Updated: 02-22-2016
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Disclaimer: The information on this website is for general informational purposes only and SHOULD NOT be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice, evaluation or care from your physician or other qualified health care provider.

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