Sarah Cannon - March 10, 2021

What is brain cancer?

A brain tumor is a mass or growth of abnormal/unwanted cells in the brain. There are many different types of brain tumors, with many being benign (noncancerous) and some being malignant (cancerous). Cancerous brain tumors can begin in the brain, known as primary brain tumors, or the cancer can begin in other parts of the body, such as the lung and breast, and spread to the brain, known as secondary or metastatic brain tumors.

How quickly a brain tumor grows can vary greatly. The growth rate, as well as the location of the brain tumor, determines how it will affect the function of the nervous system and the body. Tumors in the brain can be especially dangerous, as even those that are benign can grow large enough to press on other parts of the brain and cause damage to essential functions.

What are the signs of brain tumors?

Brain tumors can develop slowly over a long period of time or develop suddenly. When a tumor grows into brain tissue, it causes pressure inside the skull to rise. This intracranial pressure can cause symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Personality or behavior changes
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness or coma

For most cancer types, the stage of the cancer is determined by if and how far the cancer has spread. However, with tumors that start in the brain, there is no formal staging system because the cancer does not typically spread to other parts of the body. For tumors that started somewhere else in the body, involvement of the brain indicates an advanced cancer.

Other factors that help determine a patient’s overall prognosis are age, functional status, tumor type, size, location of the tumor, extent of surgery, and the types of genetic mutations driving cancer development and growth.

Care team

During the cancer journey, patients will typically see a neuro-oncologist, neurosurgeon, and radiation oncologist. For patients whose cancer started outside the brain, a medical oncologist is another important member of the team. Additionally, the physician team is supported by experienced and knowledgeable nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurse navigators, and other healthcare professionals who provide compassionate care, educational resources, and guidance through every step of the cancer journey.

Treatment options

Every brain tumor is different, and thus, so are the symptoms and treatments. At Sarah Cannon, a comprehensive care team will take into account all factors to determine the best treatment plan. Additionally, treatment plans are presented and discussed at a multidisciplinary brain and spinal tumor conference consisting of neuro-oncologists, neurosurgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologist, ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeons, nurse navigators, and care coordinators from across the Sarah Cannon network.

Standard treatments for adult brain cancer patients include:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Clinical trials

Neuro-oncology cancer care at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health provides comprehensive, state-of-the-art, individualized, and compassionate medical care for patients with a variety of benign and malignant brain tumors, spinal cord tumors, and neurologic complications from cancer.

Both patients and caregivers are cared for by a dedicated and diligent team of specialists from across the Sarah Cannon network, including experienced neuro-oncologists, neurosurgeons, radiation oncologists, neuroradiologists, and neuropathologists who specialize solely in neuro-oncology. These specialists provide patients with the best treatment options, including clinical trials, suited for the patient’s circumstances, tumor type, and molecular markers.

"We specialize in personalized care for our community, tailoring patients’ treatment plans based on their genetic profile and their own molecular mutations," said Amandeep Kalra, MD, Medical Director of Neuro-oncology at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health. "We offer advanced cutting-edge cancer treatments including immunotherapy and clinical trials, providing compassionate and advanced care within the community."


Surgery on brain tumors may be performed for removal of the tumor, debulking of the tumor to relieve intracranial pressure, or to biopsy of the tumor. The most common type of surgery to remove a brain tumor is a craniotomy. Innovative surgical options include computer-assisted brain surgery, awake brain surgery, robotic surgery, and laser surgery. These procedures can help certain people who have been told previously that they have an inoperable brain tumor.

Radiation therapy

Radiation for brain cancer patients is typically used after surgery to kill remaining tumor cells, but may also serve as the main treatment if surgery is not an option. The most common type of radiation therapy is external beam radiation. Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HCA Midwest Health offers advanced radiation treatments including IMRT, SRS, and state-of-the-art Gamma tiles treatment.


Chemotherapy including cutting-edge clinical trials, uses drugs that target cancer cells and is administered either by mouth or through an IV. Chemotherapy is commonly used for fast-growing tumors and is often used in combination with radiation and/or surgery. For advanced tumors or tumors that have returned or progressed, it may also be used alone.

Targeted therapy, immunotherapy and clinical trials

For advanced tumors or tumors that have returned of progressed, there may be an opportunity for clinical trials, further targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Targeted therapy is designed to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells and are chosen based on a patient's genetic profile. Targeted therapies can also be used to activate cells to carry drugs, toxins or radioactive material directly to cancer cells in the brain. Cutting-edge immunotherapy treatments and clinical trials are also available for brain tumor patients. Talk with your neuro-oncologist about your treatment options.

For more information about the signs, symptoms, and treatment of brain cancer, call askSARAH at (844) 482-4812 to speak to a nurse who is specially trained to help with your cancer questions or visit askSARAH online.