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What Is a Tumor, and What Makes Brain Tumors Different From Other Tumors?

Originally published on November 10, 2009
Most recently updated on April 10, 2013

A tumor is any abnormal mass in or on the body that is caused by abnormal cells growing and multiplying in an uncontrolled way. Doctors also call a tumor a neoplasm.

Primary tumors are made up of cells unique to the organ or tissue where they start. Secondary tumors start somewhere else in the body and spread, or metastasize, to one or more sites. Most brain and spinal cord tumors in children are primary, meaning that they start in the CNS and are not the result of malignant cells’ spreading to the brain from another location in the body. A primary tumor in the CNS rarely spreads beyond the brain and spinal cord.

When a tumor grows slowly and does not spread, it may be called benign. In contrast, malignant tumors tend to be fast-growing (made of cells that divide and multiply very quickly) and can invade surrounding tissues. Malignant tumors with aggressive growth may travel and grow somewhere else within the CNS. (Magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] scans of the whole CNS are sometimes indicated to determine if this has occurred.) The word malignancy generally means cancer. A common perception is that all malignancy and cancer is “bad” and that benign or nonmalignant is “good.” When we talk about tumors in the CNS, however, these definitions become blurred. Even a benign tumor that grows slowly can be life threatening if it is in an area of the brain where it compresses structures that control the most vital body functions (like breathing or blood circulation). There are occasions where even benign tumors cannot be effectively treated, and in some circumstances, benign tumors may change over time to malignant tumors.

Because the brain and spinal cord are enclosed in rigid containers (skull and spine), abnormal growths may be noticed simply because there is not enough room for them. Often the growth or tumor will cause increased pressure in the head or spine, which produces symptoms. Symptoms are often evident at an early stage of tumor growth.   

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