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Brain Tumor Terms

Some of the words we use to talk about brain tumors can be confusing or hard to understand. Here are some definitions that may help you.

The first thing to know is that brain tumors can be either benign or malignant:

  • Benign tumors are not cancerous. They tend to grow more slowly than tumors that are cancerous. And they may have edges that are more even, making them easier to operate on.
  • Malignant tumors are cancerous. They tend to grow and spread faster than benign tumors. And they are often harder to treat.

There are 2 other ways to group brain tumors:

  • those that come to the brain from another part of the body
  • those that start in the brain.

A tumor that spreads to the brain from another part of the body is called a metastatic brain tumor. Most malignant (cancerous) brain tumors are metastatic.

A tumor that starts in the brain is called a primary brain tumor. It may be benign or malignant.

Common types of primary brain tumors include:

  • A glioma can develop from different types of cells in the brain. A glioma is graded on a scale of 1 to 4. A grade 1 or 2 tumor grows more slowly than a grade 3 or 4 tumor. The higher the number, the more aggressive and invasive the tumor. A glioma is often difficult to treat because it grows into normal brain tissue.
  • A meningioma gets its name because it grows from the covering of the brain, called the meninges. This type of tumor can cause symptoms by pressing against the brain or spine as it grows. A meningioma tends to be benign and to grow slowly. But it can be malignant. And it can be very difficult to treat.
  • An acoustic neuroma grows on the nerve at the base of the brain that controls hearing and balance. It usually grows slowly and is benign (noncancerous).
  • An ependymoma grows from cells that line fluid-filled spaces in the brain called ventricles. An ependymoma tumor can also occur in the spine. It may grow slowly or quickly.
  • A pituitary tumor grows on the pituitary gland. Because the pituitary gland is near the optic nerve, a pituitary tumor can affect vision. And because the pituitary gland produces hormones and controls other glands that produce hormones, a pituitary tumor can also affect how other glands work.
  • A craniopharyngioma grows near the pituitary gland and optic nerve. Like a pituitary tumor, a caniopharyngioma can cause problems with vision or gland function.

Treatment for brain tumors varies depending on the type of tumor, where it is located, and other factors. Basic types of treatment include:

  • surgery
  • radiation (including a specialized type of radiation called radiosurgery)
  • chemotherapy

Highly specialized teams at Vanderbilt work with patients on a case-by-case basis to develop treatment plans just for them. These plans may involve more than one type of treatment. And because Vanderbilt is a research institution, patients may also be able to join in tests of new types of treatments, called clinical trials.