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Brain Cancer Diagnosis & Treatment

Virginia Mason Franciscan Health's brain cancer specialists offer a unique approach for diagnosing, treating and supporting individuals with brain cancer. From diagnosis through treatment and beyond, our team offers a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to brain cancer treatment.

Brain cancer diagnosis

Brain cancer is the growth of abnormal cells in the brain or skull. A brain tumor may be either cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Both types of tumors are serious because either one can compress and damage brain tissue. Both can also cause identical symptoms.

Brain cancer is either a primary cancer, meaning that it originates within the brain, or is a secondary cancer, meaning that it has spread (metastasized) to the brain from another site in the body, such as a lung or breast. When tumors spread to the brain, they contain cancer cells from the original tumor.

A cancer that originates in the brain rarely spreads to other parts of the body, but it may spread to other parts of the brain. The cause of most brain tumors is not known. 

No screening tests exist that detect cancer in the brain or spinal cord. If your provider suspects cancer in your brain or spinal cord, you’ll need a complete physical exam and review of your medical history.

Our cancer specialists diagnose brain and spinal cord cancer through one or more tests, including:

  • Diagnostic imaging, including CT and MRI scans and X-rays
  • Spinal tap (lumbar puncture) to assess cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord
  • Tumor biopsy to determine the type of tumor

Symptoms of a brain tumor

Even a small tumor can cause symptoms, such as headaches, seizures or bleeding. Most tumors, however, cause no symptoms until they have grown large enough to compress brain tissue, which can then also cause the following:

  • Personality change
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness or paralysis in an arm or leg
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Blindness

Brain cancer treatment

Treatment for a brain tumor is determined based on the type, size and location of the tumor, as well as the patient's overall health. Surgery is frequently performed to remove all or as much of the tumor as possible. In some cases, tumors can be completely cured with only surgery, without the need for further treatment. Advances in radiation therapy, chemotherapy and medications can also contribute to effective treatment and the control of symptoms.

Neuro-Oncology Tumor Board

People with brain tumors are seen by a multidisciplinary team that includes neurologists and neurosurgeons who specialize in diagnosing and treating tumors of the nervous system, including spinal tumors. In addition, Virginia Mason Franciscan Health’s Neuro-Oncology Tumor Board—which includes experts from medical oncology, radiation oncology, radiology and pathology—review individual cases. These doctors are joined by other specialists as needed. Together, the experts and specialists at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health develop a unique treatment plan that addresses the particular aspects of each person’s disease. The care team then continues to carefully follow each patient from diagnosis through treatment and recovery.

  • Surgery

    The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the tumor as possible while minimizing damage to healthy tissue. Some tumors can be completely removed, while others only partially or not at all. Partial removal can still help to relieve symptoms by reducing pressure on the brain and reducing the size of the tumor to be treated by radiation or chemotherapy. Virginia Mason Franciscan Health surgeons use the latest computer-assisted neurosurgery techniques, allowing the best visualization of the tumor and brain for the most effective treatment possible.

  • Radiation therapy

    If a tumor can’t be removed by surgery, or if it is only partially removed, the next option is radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays aimed at the tumor site to kill cancer cells. Doctors who administer radiation therapy are called radiation oncologists. Types of radiation therapy include:

    • External beam radiation: This form of radiation therapy delivers radiation to the area of the brain where the tumor is located, or it can be applied to the whole brain. Whole brain radiation can be used following surgery to kill any remaining tumor cells or to treat multiple tumors. A course of therapy often lasts five to six weeks. The use of specialized radiation-sensitizing drugs with treatments can increase the cancer-killing effects of radiation, even as less of it is used. Patients benefit from receiving a more effective treatment with reduced exposure to radiation.

    • Stereotactic radiosurgery: Radiosurgery can be an option when a brain tumor can’t be removed with traditional surgery. Stereotactic radiosurgery uses multiple beams of radiation precisely focused on the tumor. Using computer-generated 3D images of the brain to target the beams, high doses of radiation are delivered to the tumor with minimal exposure to surrounding tissues. Radiosurgery at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health involves collaboration among a team of medical experts from neurosurgery, radiation oncology and diagnostic radiology.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy treatment consists of powerful anticancer agents, usually given intravenously. The treatment works by stopping the division of cell growth in the body, essentially killing a growing cancer. However, because chemotherapy cannot distinguish between good and bad cells, all cells stop dividing. Rapidly dividing cells, such as those found in hair follicles and in bone marrow, are particularly prone to the toxic effects of chemotherapy. For this reason, people undergoing treatment may lose some of their hair and are at risk of developing anemia (low blood cell production) which may bring on chronic fatigue.

    A course of chemotherapy may consist of several cycles of treatment spaced six to eight weeks apart, daily treatments during radiation therapy, or chemotherapy given for five days out of each 28-day cycle. Even in cases in which chemotherapy does not cure the disease, studies have shown that this form of treatment helps people live longer and more comfortably.

  • Drug therapy

    Specialized drugs are sometimes used in the treatment of brain tumors for controlling increased intracranial pressure, swelling and seizure activity. Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary emboli are conditions associated with some primary tumors and are preventable or treatable with blood-thinning medications. Pain medications are also used to control the symptoms of brain tumors.

  • Experimental treatment

    Experimental or investigational therapies not yet approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or new combinations of available treatments may be offered in clinical research studies. Your doctor will tell you more about the risks and expected benefits of treatment. In addition, as new treatment options become available, your doctor, along with your input, will determine if they are options for you.

Brain cancer second opinions

If you’ve been diagnosed with brain cancer, learn more about second opinions  and how they may help you find all your available treatment options.

Brain cancer research and clinical trials

Virginia Mason Franciscan Health is a leader in cancer research. Learn more about research and clinical trial options

Brain cancer wellness and support

Cancer treatment include more than just treating physical symptoms. Learn more about our comprehensive wellness and support services

Brain cancer specialists

To learn more about brain cancer care or to make an appointment, find a specialist near you.