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What Is Cancer of the Nervous System?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Mecomber
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Images By: Alila, J E Theriot
  • Last Modified Date: 20 March 2014
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In the human body, the nervous system is divided into two sections: the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS is comprised of the brain and spinal cord. The PNS constitutes all the other nerves connected to the spinal cord radiating out into the body, as well as nerve cells and connective tissues. Cancer of the nervous system involves tumors that form in one or more parts of the nervous system. Tumors can affect the body in numerous ways, because the nervous system enables the body to process sensory information through chemical signaling, process thought and reasoning, move muscles through electrical signaling, provide speech and perform many other bodily functions.

Nervous system cancer is the second leading type of cancer in children, after leukemia. Gliomas, which are cancers that afflict the brain stem, are the most common types of cancers accounting for 45 percent of all brain cancers. Ependymomas are tumors that form in the brain cells that produce and store cerebrospinal fluid; these tumors usually form on the top or back of the head. Oncologists differentiate the various types of brain tumors based on the location of the tumor in the brain. For example, tumors that develop in the pineal section of the brain are called pineoblastomas.

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Cancer of the nervous system might affect the eye. Cancer that affects the retina is called retinoblastoma, and cancer that affects the optic nerve is known as optic nerve glioma. Neuroblastomas are cancer cells located in the adrenal medulla nerve cells of the body or other nervous system tissues such as the adrenal glands, around the spinal cord or in the abdomen. Other types of cancers are craniopharyngioma, intracranial germ cell tumor and astrocytoma, among others.

Diagnosis of cancer of the nervous system might be difficult at first, because symptoms of cancer mimic common ailments: headache, vomiting, nausea or drowsiness. More obvious signs of cancer of the nervous system include double vision, memory or speech loss, localized weakness, severe headaches and seizures. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for successful recovery.

Treatments for cancer of the nervous system usually involve surgery for the removal of tumors. Brain cancers are much more common than spinal cord cancers, and they rarely spread to other parts of the body. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy treat and control metastatic tumors from other areas of the body, such as the lung or breast, to prevent cancer cells from afflicting the brain.

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