Diagnosis

If it's suspected that you have a brain tumor, your doctor may recommend a number of tests and procedures, including:

  • A neurological exam. A neurological exam may include, among other things, checking your vision, hearing, balance, coordination, strength and reflexes. Difficulty in one or more areas may provide clues about the part of your brain that could be affected by a brain tumor.
  • Imaging tests. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is commonly used to help diagnose brain tumors. In some cases a dye may be injected through a vein in your arm during your MRI study.

    A number of specialized MRI scan components — including functional MRI, perfusion MRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy — may help your doctor evaluate the tumor and plan treatment.

    Other imaging tests may include computerized tomography (CT) scan and positron emission tomography (PET).

  • Tests to find cancer in other parts of your body. If it's suspected that your brain tumor may be a result of cancer that has spread from another area of your body, your doctor may recommend tests and procedures to determine where the cancer originated. One example might be a CT scan of the chest to look for signs of lung cancer.
  • Collecting and testing a sample of abnormal tissue (biopsy). A biopsy can be performed as part of an operation to remove the brain tumor, or a biopsy can be performed using a needle.

    A stereotactic needle biopsy may be done for brain tumors in hard to reach areas or very sensitive areas within your brain that might be damaged by a more extensive operation. Your neurosurgeon drills a small hole into your skull. A thin needle is then inserted through the hole. Tissue is removed using the needle, which is frequently guided by CT or MRI scanning.

    The biopsy sample is then viewed under a microscope to determine if it is cancerous or benign. This information is critical to establish a diagnosis and prognosis and, most importantly, in guiding treatment.

Brain tumor consultation at Mayo Clinic Brain tumor consultation at Mayo Clinic

Treatment

Treatment for a brain tumor depends on the type, size and location of the tumor, as well as your overall health and your preferences.

Surgery

If the brain tumor is located in a place that makes it accessible for an operation, your surgeon will work to remove as much of the brain tumor as possible.

In some cases, tumors are small and easy to separate from surrounding brain tissue, which makes complete surgical removal possible. In other cases, tumors can't be separated from surrounding tissue or they're located near sensitive areas in your brain, making surgery risky. In these situations your doctor removes as much of the tumor as is safe.

Even removing a portion of the brain tumor may help reduce your signs and symptoms.

Surgery to remove a brain tumor carries risks, such as infection and bleeding. Other risks may depend on the part of your brain where your tumor is located. For instance, surgery on a tumor near nerves that connect to your eyes may carry a risk of vision loss.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays or protons, to kill tumor cells. Radiation therapy can come from a machine outside your body (external beam radiation), or, in very rare cases, radiation can be placed inside your body close to your brain tumor (brachytherapy).

External beam radiation can focus just on the area of your brain where the tumor is located, or it can be applied to your entire brain (whole-brain radiation). Whole-brain radiation is most often used to treat cancer that has spread to the brain from some other part of the body.

Side effects of radiation therapy depend on the type and dose of radiation you receive. Common side effects during or immediately following radiation include fatigue, headaches and scalp irritation.

Radiosurgery

Stereotactic radiosurgery is not a form of surgery in the traditional sense. Instead, radiosurgery uses multiple beams of radiation to give a highly focused form of radiation treatment to kill the tumor cells in a very small area. Each beam of radiation isn't particularly powerful, but the point where all the beams meet — at the brain tumor — receives a very large dose of radiation to kill the tumor cells.

There are different types of technology used in radiosurgery to deliver radiation to treat brain tumors, such as a Gamma Knife or linear accelerator (LINAC).

Radiosurgery is typically done in one treatment, and in most cases you can go home the same day.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill tumor cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be taken orally in pill form or injected into a vein (intravenously). The chemotherapy drug used most often to treat brain tumors is temozolomide (Temodar), which is taken as a pill. Many other chemotherapy drugs are available and may be used depending on the type of cancer.

Chemotherapy side effects depend on the type and dose of drugs you receive. Chemotherapy can cause nausea, vomiting and hair loss.

Targeted drug therapy

Targeted drug treatments focus on specific abnormalities present within cancer cells. By blocking these abnormalities, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die.

One targeted drug therapy used to treat a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma is bevacizumab (Avastin). This drug, given through a vein (intravenously), stops the formation of new blood vessels, cutting off blood supply to a tumor and killing the tumor cells.

The targeted drug everolimus (Afinitor) is used to treat a benign brain tumor that occurs in people with a genetic disorder called tuberous sclerosis. Everolimus blocks an enzyme in the body that plays a role in the growth of cancer cells.

Rehabilitation after treatment

Because brain tumors can develop in parts of the brain that control motor skills, speech, vision and thinking, rehabilitation may be a necessary part of recovery. Your doctor may refer you to services that can help, such as:

  • Physical therapy can help you regain lost motor skills or muscle strength.
  • Occupational therapy can help you get back to your normal daily activities, including work, after a brain tumor or other illness.
  • Speech therapy with specialists in speech difficulties (speech pathologists) can help if you have difficulty speaking.
  • Tutoring for school-age children can help kids cope with changes in their memory and thinking after a brain tumor.

Clinical trials

Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.

Alternative medicine

Little research has been done on complementary and alternative brain tumor treatments. No alternative treatments have been proved to cure brain tumors. However, complementary treatments may help you cope with your brain tumor and its treatment. Talk to your doctor about your options.

Some complementary treatments that may help you cope include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis
  • Meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Relaxation exercises

Living with Brain Tumors

Coping and support

A diagnosis of a brain tumor can be overwhelming and frightening. It can make you feel like you have little control over your health. But you can take steps to cope with the shock and grief that may come after your diagnosis. Consider trying to:

  • Learn enough about brain tumors to make decisions about your care. Ask your doctor about your specific type of brain tumor, including your treatment options and, if you like, your prognosis. As you learn more about brain tumors, you may become more confident in making treatment decisions.
  • Keep friends and family close. Keeping your close relationships strong will help you deal with your brain tumor. Friends and family can provide the practical support you'll need, such as helping take care of your house if you're in the hospital. And they can serve as emotional support when you feel overwhelmed by cancer.
  • Find someone to talk with. Find a good listener who is willing to listen to you talk about your hopes and fears. This may be a friend or family member. The concern and understanding of a counselor, medical social worker, clergy member or cancer support group also may be helpful.

Ask your doctor about support groups in your area. Or check your phone book, library or a cancer organization, such as the National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society.

Preparing for your appointment

See your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. If you're diagnosed with a brain tumor, you may be referred to specialists, such as:

  • Doctors who specialize in brain disorders (neurologists)
  • Doctors who treat cancer (oncologists)
  • Doctors who use radiation to treat cancer (radiation oncologists)
  • Doctors who specialize in nervous system cancers (neuro-oncologists)
  • Surgeons who operate on the brain and nervous system (neurosurgeons)
  • Rehabilitation specialists

It's a good idea to be well-prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

  • Be aware of any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, be sure to ask if there's anything you need to do in advance, such as restrict your diet.
  • Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
  • Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
  • Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements that you're taking.
  • Consider taking a family member or friend along. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
  • Write down questions to ask your doctor.

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For a brain tumor, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What type of brain tumor do I have?
  • Where is my brain tumor located?
  • How large is my brain tumor?
  • How aggressive is my brain tumor?
  • Is my brain tumor cancerous?
  • Will I need additional tests?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • Can any treatments cure my brain tumor?
  • What are the benefits and risks of each treatment?
  • Is there one treatment you feel is best for me?
  • Should I see a specialist? What will that cost, and will my insurance cover it?
  • Are there brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
  • What will determine whether I should plan for a follow-up visit?

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions that occur to you.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:

  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?

Brain tumor care at Mayo Clinic

Nov. 17, 2017
References
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  2. Adult brain tumors treatment (PDQ): Health professional version. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/adultbrain/healthprofessional. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  3. Daroff RB, et al. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2012. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  4. Childhood brain and spinal cord tumors treatment overview (PDQ): Health professional version. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/childbrain/healthprofessional. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  5. Niederhuber JE, et al., eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2014. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  6. Armstrong TS, et al. Use of complementary and alternative medical therapy by patients with primary brain tumors. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports. 2008;8:264.
  7. Avastin (prescribing information). South San Francisco, Calif.: Genentech Inc.; 2013. http://www.avastin.com/patient/index.html. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  8. Afinitor (prescribing information). East Hanover, N.J.: Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp.; 2014. http://www.afinitor.com. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  9. Temodar (prescribing information). Whitehouse Station, N.J.: Merck & Co. Inc.; 2013. http://www.temodar.com. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  10. Taking time: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/takingtime. Accessed Oct. 4, 2013.
  11. Brain SPOREs. National Cancer Institute. http://trp.cancer.gov/spores/brain.htm. Accessed Oct. 9, 2013.
  12. Golden AK. Decision Support System. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 2, 2013.

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