Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

How are brain and spinal cord tumors in adults staged?

The stage of a cancer is a measure of how far it has spread. A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to describe the extent of this spread. For most types of cancer, the stage is one of the most important factors in selecting treatment options and in determining the outlook (prognosis).

But tumors of the brain and spinal cord differ in some important ways from cancers in other parts of the body. One of the main reasons other cancers are dangerous is that they can spread throughout the body. Tumors starting in the brain or spinal cord can spread to other parts of the central nervous system, but they almost never spread to other organs. These tumors are dangerous because they can interfere with essential functions of the brain.

Because tumors in the brain or spinal cord almost never spread to other parts of the body, there is no formal staging system for them. Some of the important factors that help determine a person’s outlook include:

  • The person’s age
  • The person’s functional level (whether the tumor is affecting normal brain functions and everyday activity)
  • The type of tumor (such as astrocytoma, ependymoma, etc.)
  • The grade of the tumor (how quickly the tumor is likely to grow, based on how the cells look under a microscope)
  • The size and location of the tumor
  • How much of the tumor can be removed by surgery (if it can be done)
  • Whether or not the tumor has spread through the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to other parts of the brain or spinal cord
  • Whether or not tumor cells have spread beyond the central nervous system

Last Medical Review: 03/05/2014
Last Revised: 03/05/2014