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Brain and spine tumors

Expert brain and spine tumor treatment in Minnesota

When you’re diagnosed with a brain or spine tumor, it can feel like your world just came to a stop. It’s common to feel unsure of what to do next and be full of questions.

We’re here to help you find answers and put into motion the most advanced treatment plan available using the latest research and technology.

At HealthPartners and Park Nicollet, we approach our treatment of brain and spine tumors by understanding the impact they have on patients both physically and mentally. Our care team is made up of board-certified oncologists, neurologists, surgeons and our expert neuro-oncologist. We also have nurse navigators on our team who specialize in coordinating patient care between our doctors, and provide continued support for patients and their families.

With award-winning cancer centers throughout the Twin Cities, along with access to research and clinical trials, high-quality care is close to home.

Types of brain and spinal tumors

Brain and spine tumors are abnormal growths that occur in the brain or spinal cord. Because the brain and spinal cord are such complex organs, there are hundreds of different types of tumors that might affect them. Our neurologists, oncologists and neuro-oncologist are experts in identifying and treating all types.

Brain and spine tumors can be sorted into one of two categories:

Primary tumors

Primary tumors are tumors that start in the brain or the spinal cord. These tumors rarely spread to other parts of the body, but can cause issues throughout the body and can damage brain tissue if left to grow.

There are many types of primary tumors. The three most common types are:

  • Astrocytomas – Astrocytomas affect the astrocyte cells, a type of glial cell, found throughout the brain tissue. Because of this, astrocytomas are able to blend in with normal tissue and sometimes spread to other parts of the brain. About two out of ten brain tumors are astrocytomas.
  • Meningiomas These tumors grow in the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. They occur twice as often in women and become more common as we age. One out of three primary brain and spinal cord tumors are meningiomas.
  • Gliomas – Gliomas refer to brain tumors that affect glial cells, like astrocytomas. About three out of ten brain tumors are gliomas. Other types of gliomas are oligodendrogliomas and ependymomas.

Primary tumors can also be classified as either benign or malignant. Benign means that the cells that make up the tumor aren’t cancerous while malignant tumors are cancerous.

Metastatic tumors

Metastatic tumors, sometimes called secondary tumors, are malignant tumors that spread to the brain or the spinal cord from somewhere else in the body. Metastatic tumors are the most common types of brain tumors that affect adults.

When metastatic tumors form in the brain, the cells in the tumors resemble the cancer cells found where the tumor originated. For example, if lung cancer tumors spread to the brain or spinal cord, the cells in the brain tumor would look exactly the same as cells found in the lung tumor.

Since metastatic tumors can be caused by a number of cancers, our oncologists and neurologists work closely together to create treatment plans that treat both the cancer and the tumor. Our team-based approach makes it possible for you to get the most effective treatment for your condition and expert support every step of the way.

Symptoms of brain and spinal tumors

There are many different types of brain and spine tumors, each with its own set of unique symptoms. These general symptoms are common throughout the different types of tumors.

  • Balance problems and vertigo
  • Blurred vision
  • Memory loss
  • Personality and behavior changes
  • Problems speaking or understanding speech
  • Seizures
  • Severe or chronic headaches
  • Unexplained drowsiness
  • Unexplained nausea and vomiting
  • Unexplained numbness, weakness or lack of coordination

Anytime you have new or unusual symptoms that you are concerned about or are getting worse, you should call your doctor’s office to decide on next steps. Since many of these symptoms are also common symptoms of other health conditions, we recommend getting started with one of our primary care doctors. They’re experts at diagnosing hundreds of conditions and can help you find answers. If your care requires additional expertise, we’ll connect you directly with one of our specialists.

Diagnosing brain and spinal tumors

Diagnosing a brain or spine tumor starts with a physical examination. During your appointment, we’ll listen to you describe your symptoms and take a medical history. Then, we’ll perform tests to confirm the type and location of your tumor. Common tests include:

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

A MRI is a non-invasive imaging test that uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to take a picture of the inside of your body. It’s used to show the placement and size of tumors. We might recommend a MRI for diagnostic testing or use an MRI to see if your tumors are responding to treatment.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

A CT scan is another type of non-invasive imaging test that uses X-rays to take detailed pictures of your body. CT scans can be used to photograph the soft tissues of your body and your bones. It gives us a good look at the size and placement of tumors, as well as how the surrounding areas are affected.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

A PET scan is a non-invasive imaging test that’s used to help determine if abnormalities picked up in MRIs or CT scans are tumors. With this test, we’ll inject a small amount of a special substance into your bloodstream. This substance will gather in tumors and help them show up in the image, differentiating them from other growths.


A biopsy is a test where a small amount of tissue is extracted and examined in our lab. It’s usually used after an imaging test to determine exactly what kind of tumor you have. A biopsy is a quick procedure that uses a thin needle to extract tissue from the tumor. We’ll use general anesthetic or anesthesia when needed to keep you as comfortable as possible during the procedure.

Treating brain and spinal tumors

Our highly skilled team including a neuro-oncologist, neurosurgeons, medical oncologists and neurologists will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan. Our nurse navigators will help you understand your treatment plan, help coordinate your appointments and make sure you have everything you need as you prepare for treatment.

Here are common treatment options for brain and spine tumors:


Surgery is commonly used to remove both malignant and benign tumors. Removing a tumor can stop or slow the spread of cancer cells and alleviate symptoms caused by the tumor, like blurred vision, migraines and nausea. Our expert neurosurgeons are highly trained in removing complex tumors from brains and spines. We’ll work with you to determine if surgery is the most effective treatment option and make sure you understand exactly what to expect before, during and after the procedure.


Radiation therapy is used to treat and manage cancer in affected areas of the body by using beams of intense energy to stop or slow the growth of abnormal cells that can’t heal damage caused by radiation. When used to treat malignant brain and spine tumors, radiation is almost always paired with chemotherapy for the best results.


Chemotherapy, often called “chemo,” uses strong drugs to kill cancerous cells throughout the entire body. Your doctor might recommend chemotherapy to treat cancer cells that have spread (metastasized) from the primary tumor. It’s commonly used to treat cancer or stop cancer from growing by shrinking the tumors.

Targeted therapy

This treatment can isolate and change specific behaviors within cancer cells, like stopping their growth, killing cancer cells or blocking chemical signals within the cells. Because targeted therapy attacks cancer cells, it does less damage to normal, healthy cells than chemotherapy. It’s sometimes prescribed to treat malignant brain and spine tumors.

Our cancer care services

During your cancer treatment, we help make sure that you and your family feel as comfortable and supported as possible. To do this, we offer a wide range of services as part of personalized treatment plans, including:

Integrative therapies

Integrative therapies are supporting treatments some people choose to have in addition to their cancer treatments. They’re used to reduce the side effects of cancer treatments and improve your overall emotional and spiritual well-being. Common types of integrative therapies include massage, healing touch, reflexology, music therapy and acupuncture.

Palliative care

Palliative care helps improve the quality of life for people with advanced stages of cancer. Palliative care works alongside medical care to keep you comfortable and provide additional support. Our specialized palliative care team works closely with our oncology department so the support you need during your illness is easily accessible. Our palliative care team will help you understand your treatments, do daily activities, coordinate communication with your doctor and can perform other services to help support you and your family.

Nutrition services

Good nutrition is needed to support the increased demands on your body while you heal. The benefits include preserving muscle mass, a healthy immune system, fewer complications and a better quality of life. We’ll recommend different nutrition guidelines to you depending on your type of cancer, stage of cancer or treatment plan. Our registered nutritionists can provide nutrition counseling to help with managing weight changes, dealing with side effects of treatment and navigating nutrition recommendations.

Genetic counseling

Cancer develops by chance, but people with a family history of cancer might be at a higher risk. It’s possible to have a gene mutation that can be passed from generation to generation. A genetic counselor can meet with you to go over your personal or family history of cancer and help you understand your hereditary risks. If you have questions about genetic counseling or want to know if genetic counseling is right for you, please ask your care team.

Cancer rehabilitation

Cancer can change the way your body functions. What used to be easy might become more difficult because of fatigue, joint pain, stiffness, weakness, numbing or swelling. Some people might even develop difficulty thinking, balancing, speaking or swallowing. Cancer rehabilitation is a type of treatment that helps you improve your function and ability to do daily activities. We’ll recommend the best treatments for you, which may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and others.

Specialty pharmacy

We provide a specialty pharmacy that’s staffed by pharmacists who are experts in cancer medications. Because our pharmacy is fully integrated with our cancer treatment centers, our pharmacists are able to work closely with your treatment team. This helps to make sure you get the special medications you need to treat and manage cancer. Our team will help you understand the cost of your medication and help you with your insurance.

The Accreditation Commission for Health Care (ACHC) has recognized us as a specialty pharmacy with a Distinction in Oncology.

Home care and hospice

Home care is when doctor-led care is provided in the comfort of your home. The goal is to manage your condition, keep you comfortable and ensure you can safely live in your home. Our team of doctors, nurses and aides will work with you to develop a care plan that meets your needs. If you think home care is the best option for you or your family member, please talk to a member of your care team. We’ll answer your questions and guide you to helpful resources.

Hospice is a type of individualized care provided to patients. The goal of hospice care is to relieve pain and help a patient’s final days be as comfortable and meaningful as possible. Hospice care doesn’t happen in a specific place. Instead, we can provide hospice care wherever you and your family feel most comfortable, including at home, in an assisted living facility, in a hospital or in a residential hospice facility. We’ll work with you to develop a care plan that helps with your medical needs along with the emotional and spiritual needs of you and your family.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)