Several different tests can be used to confirm or rule out the diagnosis of a brain tumor. Typically, the process begins with a patient discussing his or her symptoms and medical history with a primary care physician. While some patients are found to have a brain tumor when they have a CT or MRI for reasons that have nothing to do with symptoms of a brain tumor (for example, after a concussion), most patients are diagnosed with a brain tumor after they start to experience symptoms. If, during this initial visit, the physician suspects that the patient might have a brain tumor, the physician may order one or more imaging scans. If these scans show a brain tumor (sometimes referred to as a "mass" or "lesion") then further evaluation needs to be performed by a brain tumor specialist or neuro-oncologist.
Types of tests used for brain tumor diagnosis
To confirm or rule out a brain tumor diagnosis, a physician will typically begin with a complete medical history – including asking about symptoms – and performing a physical examination. This examination will include a neurologic exam to check functions of the brain and central nervous system, such as reflexes, vision, coordination, balance and more. If the results of these exams make the physician suspect a brain tumor, then further testing will be necessary.
The experts in our Neuro-Oncology Program may utilize any of the following testing methods when confirming a brain tumor diagnosis:
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
- Electroencephalogram (EEG)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Computed tomography (CT) scan
- Neurosurgical biopsies
- Liquid molecular biopsies from blood or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)
- Next-generation sequencing tests (used to examine samples of cancerous tissue to learn about the genetic makeup of the tumor cells)
If a tumor is found by any of these tests, a biopsy may follow to obtain a sample of the tumor tissue, allowing pathologists to determine what type of tumor it is. Sometimes, depending on the size and location of the tumor, the treatment team will go straight to surgical removal of the tumor.
Next steps following a brain tumor diagnosis
The Neuro-Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center features a multispecialty tumor board that collaborates to develop individualized treatment plans for each of our patients. As a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Moffitt has all areas of treatment available in a single location, as well as a robust clinical trials program featuring innovative therapy options that are not yet widely available.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Michael Vogelbaum, Program Leader, Department of Neuro-Oncology.