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Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is a tumor?

A. A tumor is an abnormal growth of cells. These cells are part of the normal make-up of the body. Tumors may be slow growing or fast growing. They can also be classified as benign or malignant.

Q. Are all brain tumors cancer?

A. Cancer is defined as an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body. However, it can also be defined as a malignant growth or tumor resulting from such a division of cells. Most people think of cancer as malignant, in which case not every brain tumor fits into this category.

Q. Are some brain tumors benign?

A. While not all tumors are malignant, we prefer to call tumors either low grade or high grade. While in other specialties low-grade tumors are considered benign, in neuro-oncology, even patients with low-grade tumors can have complicated disease based on tumor type and location.

Q. What causes brain or spinal cord tumors?

A. Most tumors are idiopathic, meaning we do not know what causes them. There are several studies in progress looking at possible risk factors for childhood cancer. Some types of tumors can be linked to a genetic disorder, such as neurofibromatosis type 1 or type 2, tuberous sclerosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, or Gorlin syndrome. Tumors can also be a secondary occurrence due to a previous exposure to radiation.

Q. How common are brain and spinal cord tumors?

A. Five in 100,000 children a year are diagnosed with a central nervous system tumor according to recent data form the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States. Here at Rady Children’s, we see approximately 40-50 patients a year that have been newly diagnosed with a pediatric brain or spinal cord tumor.

Q. How is a brain or spinal cord tumor diagnosed?

A. Tumors are often detected when patients experience signs and symptoms that lead to a medical work-up. Oftentimes, a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is performed to obtain detailed images of the brain and/or spine. If the tumor is amenable to surgery based on location and size, a biopsy will be performed by the neurosurgical team to obtain a tissue sample for pathology studies.

Q. What are the signs and symptoms of a brain tumor?

A. Symptoms are based on where in the brain the tumor is located. The most common symptoms associated with brain tumors are:

  • Persistent, recurrent headaches
  • Persistent nausea which may be accompanied by vomiting
  • Decreased level of energy and activity
  • Blurred vision
  • Altered eye movements
  • Decreased strength or coordination
  • Seizures

In young children, parents may notice a loss of previously attained developmental milestones.

Q. What are the signs and symptoms of a spinal cord tumor?

A. Symptoms are based on where in the spinal cord the tumor is located. The most common symptoms associated with spinal cord tumors are:

  • Persistent pain to the neck or back
  • Radiating sensation of pain, numbness, or tingling to the arms or legs
  • Decreased strength or coordination
  • Impaired gait
  • Abnormal curvature of the spine

Q. How do you treat a brain or spinal cord tumor?

A. The management of brain and spinal cord tumors is determined by the type of tumor, where it is located, its size, and the age of the patient. Treatment may consist of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. There are times where no intervention is required and the tumor will simply be monitored with periodic MRI scans.

Q. How long does treatment last?

A. The length of treatment itself varies based on multiple factors including the type of tumor and whether or not surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy are required. However, all children diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor will be followed by our Neuro-Oncology team throughout the course of their therapy and survivorship until they reach adulthood and transition to an adult neuro-oncology program.

Q. What clinical trials for brain and spinal cord tumors are available at Rady Children’s?

A. Please see our list of open clinical trials for more information on research protocols that are available here at Rady Children’s. A complete listing of current open clinical trials that are available nationwide can be accessed at

Q. Where can I go to get more information on pediatric brain and spinal cord tumors?

A. Please see our extensive list of resources for more information on tumors, treatment, clinical trials, dietary guidelines and family support.

Q. What resources does Rady Children’s offer to families and patients diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor?

A. We strive to offer comprehensive care to every person affected by a new or existing diagnosis. We have a multitude of programs to serve our patients and families at every step of their journey, including psychosocial programs, support groups, integrative medicine and neuropsychological testing.