A glioma is a tumor that forms in the brain or spinal cord. There are several types, including astrocytomas, ependymomas and oligodendrogliomas. Gliomas can affect children or adults. Some grow very quickly. Most people with gliomas need a combination of treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
A glioma is a tumor that forms when glial cells grow out of control. Normally, these cells support nerves and help your central nervous system work. Gliomas usually grow in the brain, but can also form in the spinal cord.
Gliomas are malignant (cancerous), but some can be very slow growing. They’re primary brain tumors, meaning they originate in the brain tissue. Gliomas don’t usually spread outside of the brain or spine, but are life-threatening because they can:
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
There are three main types of gliomas, grouped by the type of glial cell they start in. Some gliomas contain multiple types of cells. Healthcare providers call these mixed gliomas. They categorize each type of glioma as low-, mid- or high-grade based on how fast they grow and other features.
Anyone can develop a glioma, but the following factors may increase your risk:
About 80,000 people are newly diagnosed with primary brain tumors each year in the U.S. Approximately 25% of these are gliomas.
Research suggests that changes to DNA lead to the development of brain tumors and spinal cord tumors like gliomas. Our genes contain DNA. They give instructions to cells about how to grow and multiply. Mutations, or changes, to the DNA in our genes can cause cells to multiply out of control.
It’s possible to inherit genetic mutations from your parents. They can also occur suddenly during your lifetime.
Symptoms of gliomas may include:
Potentially life-threatening complications of gliomas include:
Your healthcare provider evaluates your symptoms and reviews your medical history. They’ll also do a complete physical and neurological exam.
If your healthcare provider sees an abnormal mass on your imaging scans, they’ll do a biopsy. A biopsy is a procedure to analyze a sample of tissue. The biopsy will help them determine:
Your treatment plan for a glioma depends on several factors, including:
For most people, surgery is the first treatment for a glioma. A surgeon may be able to remove all of the tumor they can see, if it’s easily accessible. But gliomas can be hard to remove completely, especially hard to reach or near delicate areas of the brain.
Additional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, should follow surgery. These are adjuvant therapies, meaning they destroy any remaining cancer cells or parts of the tumor after surgery. But if a tumor is inoperable, your provider might use chemotherapy or radiation therapy as your primary treatments.
A craniotomy (open brain surgery) is the most common type of surgery to remove gliomas. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, you may be a candidate for laser ablation. This minimally invasive surgery uses heat from a laser to destroy all or part of a brain tumor.
A surgeon may use special techniques, such as imaging or brain mapping, to guide the surgery. Brain mapping shows which areas of your brain control vital functions. This information helps your surgeon avoid removing or harming healthy brain tissue.
Radiation therapy uses powerful doses of radiation to destroy tumors. Your healthcare provider may recommend radiation therapy for gliomas. Radiation therapy targets the exact shape of the tumor, minimizing the risk of damage to surrounding tissues.
You may also receive a form of radiation therapy called brachytherapy. A healthcare provider applies radiation sources close to the tumor to treat it. The sources release radiation without harming nearby tissues.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells. It treats many types of cancer. This treatment may be oral of intravenous.
Temozolomide is a common chemotherapy medicine that is given to improve the efficacy of radiation therapy.
Most risk factors for gliomas, such as age and race, aren’t controllable. But early detection and treatment of low-grade gliomas may slow or prevent their progression into high-grade gliomas. If brain tumors run in your family, you may want to consider genetic testing. Talk to your healthcare provider or a genetic counselor about the risks and benefits of genetic testing.
It is also a good idea to:
Survival rates for gliomas vary by tumor type, tumor grade and a person’s age. Certain mutations can also affect the prognosis. The older someone is when they’re diagnosed and treated, the worse the outlook. The five-year survival rate for adults and children is highest for low-grade ependymomas, oligodendrogliomas and astrocytomas. It’s lowest (between 6% and 20%) for glioblastomas.
After treatment, stay in close communication with your healthcare provider. You’ll need regular imaging scans to see if the cancer returns.
Brain cancer treatment can cause damage to healthy brain tissue. Rehabilitation with physical therapists or occupational therapists can help you regain skills like walking, speaking and remembering.
Support groups for you and your family can help you manage the physical and emotional challenges of living with a brain tumor.
If you have a glioma, you may want to ask your provider the following questions:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Gliomas are tumors that form in glial cells in the brain and spinal cord. They’re usually cancerous. It’s rare for gliomas to spread to other areas of your body. But they can grow quickly through the brain and spine and are life-threatening. Most people with gliomas need a combination of treatments. These may include surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Young people with low-grade, or slow-growing, gliomas have the highest chance of survival.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/20/2021.
Learn more about our editorial process.