glial cells
Glial cells under microscope

Approximately 22,000 new cases of brain or spinal cord cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States.1 While there are several different types of brain cancer that arise from different cells found in the brain, the most common type are referred to as gliomas. Arising from glial cells, specialized cells that hold nerve cells in place, gliomas account for approximately eight out of 10 malignant brain tumors.2

There are three types of glial cells and cancer can form in any of these cells:

The majority of gliomas form in astrocytes, which are the glial cells that support neurons. Commonly called astrocytomas, these tumors spread easily throughout normal brain cells making them hard to be removed by surgery.
These glial cells make myelin, a substance that insulates nerve cells. Similar to astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas grow into normal brain cells and cannot be entirely removed by surgery.
These cells line the fluid-filled areas of the brain. Unlike astrocytomes and oligodendrocytes, these type of tumors do not grow into normal brain tissue, but rather form its own location, making them easier to remove by surgery.

While treatment options for gliomas largely depend on the type of cell that is affected -- astrocytes, oligodenrocytes or ependymal – as well as its size upon diagnosis, treatment may include one or more of the following:

Surgery, called a craniotomy, is typically the first step to remove a glioma, but is largely dependent on how it has spread and if it can be removed without harming other parts of the brain. General anesthesia is given as the patient must remain awake during the surgery.
Radiation Therapy
External radiation therapy (intensity-modulated, proton beam or sterotactic) is given after a craniotomy or is used in patients who cannot undergo surgery because of the location of the glioma.
Depending on the type of glioma, chemotherapy can be given intravenously, by mouth or through surgically-implanted wafers that contain chemotherapy.
Targeted Therapy
A targeted therapy called Avastin can be used to shrink certain gliomas with less severe side effects than chemotherapy. This drug, given intravenously, works by preventing the growth of blood vessels needed for a tumor to grow.


  1. American Cancer Society. Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults Detailed Guide (key statistics). Accessed on November 10, 2010.
  2. American Cancer Society. Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Adults Detailed Guide (what are...). Accessed on November 10, 2010.


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