Nearly 24,000 cases of malignant tumors of the brain or spinal cord are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, according to the American Cancer Society. Of these cases, the vast majority (17,000 people) will die from a brain or spinal cord tumor. For people ages 20 to 39, primary or metastatic tumors of the brain or spinal cord ranks as the third leading cause of cancer death.

While these statistics may appear disheartening, there can be misconceptions about the treatment of brain tumors and spinal cord tumors.

Dr. Michael Pearlman, neurologist at Swedish Medical Center, shares his insights into new developments in the field of brain and spinal cord tumor research, what patients should know about these tumors, and the specialized treatment options available at Swedish.

Key facts about brain and spinal cord tumors 

Not all brain tumors result in brain cancer. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, less than one-third of brain tumors are malignant (cancerous). 

While the median age at diagnosis for primary brain tumors is 60, brain tumors are the second most common cancer among children in infancy up to age 14. The direct cause of a brain tumor is often unknown. However, risk factors for brain tumors include genetics, family history and age. An estimated 5 to 10 percent of brain tumors are hereditary. 

Why you need to see a specialist for a brain tumor 

For patients who have been diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor, it’s imperative that they see a neurologist who specializes in these types of tumors, says Dr. Pearlman. 

“When you have cancer, you think an oncologist is good enough,” says Dr. Pearlman. “[Patients] need to find someone experienced in brain tumors, not a general oncologist … It’s about finding the right specialist who knows what they’re doing.” 

In some cases, a general oncologist might not even refer a patient with these types of tumors to a neurologist, which Dr. Pearlman says he finds frustrating and “very strange.” 

“In no way would it hurt [a] patient to get a spinal cord tumor excised,” Dr. Pearlman says. 

If you have recently been diagnosed with a tumor, call our Brain Tumor Support Hotline for assistance with discussing and identifying treatment options, second opinion services, emotional support resources and more. Call 303-788-5500, Monday-Friday between 3pm and 4pm. 

New advancements in the study of brain cancers 

According to Dr. Pearlman, there can be some misinformation and misunderstandings about the treatment of lethal brain cancers, especially in the news. In June 2018, CBS News reported on a study that involved brain tumor patients who were given a genetically modified poliovirus. In 2015, “60 Minutes” also ran a segment that looked at treating brain tumors with the poliovirus. 

While news reports might make it seem like these studies are on the cutting edge, they usually involve a phase one trial, when in fact it might take two or three phases of trials and more than 10 years of research to know the full result of these studies, says Dr. Pearlman. 

“When you put this [information] out there, you give a lot of people a lot of false hope,” Dr. Pearlman says. 

However, Dr. Pearlman also says that there are many clinical trials in later stages that potentially indicate more promising outcomes for patients with brain and spinal cord tumors. Even in studies where only a small number of patients responded to innovative treatments, this can show signs of progress. 

“When you’re dealing with lethal cancers, some indication that something works is encouraging,” Dr. Pearlman says. “Over the last four or five years, we’ve had more developments of different kinds of treatments than we’ve ever had before.” 

Survival rates for brain and spinal cord tumors 

In looking at the ongoing research, Dr. Pearlman says he is optimistic about the future of treating these lethal brain and spinal cord tumors. 

“[For these types of tumors], the survival rate has gone from six months to 14 to 16 months, compared to 15 years ago,” Dr. Pearlman says. “Two decades ago, no one [with a brain tumor] lived past five years, but now about 15 percent of the population does.” 

Currently awaiting approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), DCVax-L is a new drug used to treat glioblastoma brain cancer. One study revealed that in 131 patients who received DCVax-L, the median survival rate after surgery was 34.7 months, while 100 other patients had a median survival rate post-surgery of 40.5 months. With standard care (surgery, radiation and chemotherapy), the median survival rate for newly diagnosed glioblastoma is 15 to 17 months. 

Clinical trials and experimental treatments for brain tumors 

For those newly diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor, “it’s important to get as much information as possible and make an educated decision,” says Dr. Pearlman. 

In partnership with the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute, Swedish Medical Center is currently participating in several ongoing clinical trial options for patients with certain types of brain cancers. Dr. Pearlman strongly encourages patients to inquire about clinical trials and consider experimental treatments. 

“From the time of diagnosis, [patients] should be exploring experimental therapies,” Dr. Pearlman says. “There’s no cure yet, so they should explore clinical trials, absolutely.” 

A leader in brain cancer research and treatment 

Swedish Medical Center is a leader in the field of neurology and the treatment of brain and spinal cord tumors. Compared to other hospitals and clinics that only deal with a small number of these brain tumors annually, specialists at Swedish Medical Center have removed over 100 brain tumors in the past year. 

While dealing with a brain cancer diagnosis can be difficult, it’s crucial for patients to research their treatment options and seek out a specialist. 

“No one wants to give up,” says Dr. Pearlman. “No one wants to say, this is my diagnosis. We all want to maintain a quality of life ... We all want to live as long as possible, so we try as hard as we can. That’s the right way to do it.” 

Along with Dr. Pearlman, the physicians and medical team at Swedish Medical Center are committed to helping each and every patient receive the best possible treatment for their diagnosis.