Brain and spinal tumours

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Supportive care for brain and spinal cord cancer

Supportive care helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of brain and spinal cord cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.

Recovering from brain and spinal cord cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person, depending on the extent of the disease, the type of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects. A person who has been treated for brain and spinal cord cancer may have the following concerns.


Brain tumours, or their treatment, can cause seizures. (Spinal cord tumours do not cause seizures.) Seizures occur because of abnormal electrical signals in the brain. Some seizures are mild, while others have more obvious signs and symptoms.

Up to 60% of people with brain tumours will have a seizure during their illness.

Signs and symptoms

The signs and symptoms of a seizure may include:

  • aura (an unusual feeling that often warns the person that they are about to have a seizure)
  • loss of consciousness (complete or momentary)
  • confusion
  • weakness
  • sensing unusual smells or tastes
  • twitching or jerking of the muscles or limbs
  • visual changes or hallucinations
  • paralysis or stiffness of the body
  • loss of bladder control


Treatment options for seizures may include anticonvulsants (anti-seizure medications):

  • phenytoin (Dilantin) – the most commonly used
  • carbamazepine (Tegretol)
  • valproate (Depakote)
  • levetiracetam (Keppra)

Blood tests are used to check the level of the anticonvulsant drug in the blood. Anticonvulsants are not usually given to prevent seizures in people who have not had them.

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Increased intracranial pressure

Changes to the volume of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) or blood within the brain and brain tissue may cause increased intracranial pressure (ICP). ICP is a serious condition that can cause cerebral edema (swelling of the brain), block blood flow to the brain and affect brain function.

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Spinal cord compression

Spinal cord compression (SCC) is a serious neurological problem. It occurs when a tumour grows in the spine and either destroys the bony vertebral body that surrounds the spinal cord or wraps around the spinal cord and its nerve roots.

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Difficulty swallowing

Difficulty swallowing is a problem for some people with brain tumours. Difficulty swallowing can lead to malnutrition, dehydration and aspiration pneumonia (inflammation of the airways and lungs caused by breathing in foreign material, such as food or liquids).

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Depression is a natural response to the diagnosis of a brain or spinal cord tumour and the disabilities it may cause. Many people diagnosed with brain or spinal cord tumours will experience depression at some time. Cognitive changes in people with brain and spinal cord cancer may make understanding and coping with depression difficult.

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See a list of questions to ask your doctor about supportive care after treatment.

supportive care

Treatment given to improve the quality of life of people who have a serious illness (such as cancer).

The goal of supportive care is to prevent or treat as early as possible the symptoms of a disease, the side effects caused by treatment and the psychological, social and spiritual problems related to the disease or its treatment.

cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)

The fluid in the cavities in and around the brain and spinal cord that helps protect and cushion these organs.


Dr Steven Jones Using cancer genetics to guide personalized treatment

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