Detection and Diagnosis

Detection and Diagnosis

Detecting brain and spinal cord cancers is based on the symptoms or problems that bring the patient to the doctor. After examination, the doctor gathers more information and special imaging techniques are used to locate and determine if cancer is present. Computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are the imaging methods usually used. The diagnosis is made by obtaining tissue either by biopsy or resection. In some cases, a spinal tap is done, as in primary central nervous system lymphoma, in order to make a diagnosis. Spinal fluid is removed and cells are studied under the microscope. By looking at the cells a neuropathologist may determine the type and grade of the cancer.


Brain and spinal cord tumors cause a wide variety of symptoms.  Often these symptoms are a result of the pressure of the tumor on healthy tissue. This occurs because of the confined space of the brain and spinal cord. Both are contained by bone structures.

There are many reasons for the symptoms with brain cancer. Some examples include:

  • Compression (pressing) by the cancer on the brain may cause symptoms of weakness, loss of sensation, problems with vision or talking.
  • Seizures, cause by the cancer which may irritate the brain.

The cancer may cause increased pressure in the skull or block the flow of spinal fluid through the brain ventricles. This may cause symptoms of headaches, confusion, problems with bladder control, walking, or balance.

Common symptoms of brain tumors include:

  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Change in personality
  • Problems talking
  • Problems with memory
  • Problems writing
  • Balance problems
  • Trouble walking
  • Muscle weakness

Common symptoms of spinal cord tumors include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Sensitive to temperature
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems with bowel or bladder function
  • Spastic muscles