Brain tumour

A brain tumour is an abnormal growth of cells in any part of the brain or related structures.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is a brain tumour?

A primary brain tumour happens when cells in your brain start to grow abnormally and in an uncontrolled way. There are over 120 types of brain tumours, differing based on the type of cell they start in, the risk of them growing and spreading and where they’re located.

Brain tumours are either:

  • Benign (low grade) – non-cancerous tumours that grow slowly and are unlikely to grow back after treatment
  • Malignant (high grade) – more aggressive cancerous tumours that are more likely to spread or return after treatment

Around 11,000 people are diagnosed with a primary brain tumour each year. Many more are diagnosed with secondary brain tumours, which is when the growth has spread from another part of your body.

Brain tumours that are treated early have a good chance of being cured through surgery and treatment. Late stage malignant tumours are harder to treat and sometimes treatment is focused on controlling the cancer and improving symptoms.

How to tell if you have a brain tumour

Brain tumour signs and symptoms vary, often depending on the location of the tumour in the brain. Common brain tumour symptoms include:

  • Severe, persistent headaches
  • Seizures
  • Nausea, vomiting and drowsiness
  • Changes in personality and behaviour and other mental changes such as impaired memory
  • Weakness or paralysis on one side of your body
  • Vision or speech problems

These symptoms can have many other causes, but you should see your doctor if symptoms are persistent or worsening.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for brain tumours

Your doctor will perform a physical examination to check your movement, reflexes, vision and other functions of your brain. They may refer you for a CT or MRI scan to help confirm or rule out a brain tumour.

If a tumour is found, then other tests can help provide more details and plan treatment:

  • PET-CT scan – a more detailed scan to show where cells are active
  • Cerebral angiogram – to create pictures of the blood vessels in your brain
  • Biopsy (small tissue sample) – to examine under the microscope
  • Blood tests – if the tumour is thought to be a secondary tumour, which is where a cancer in another part of your body has spread to your brain
  • Hormone tests – if a tumour in your pituitary gland (found at the base of your brain) is suspected

Causes of brain tumours

The cause of most brain tumours is unknown. However, factors that increase your risk include:

  • Aging – although brain tumours can affect people of all ages
  • Being overweight
  • Family history of brain cancer
  • HIV or AIDS
  • Previous cancers
  • Radiation – from radiotherapy, X-ray or CT scans to the head

Common treatments for brain tumours

The treatment you have will depend on:

  • The type of brain tumour
  • The grade of tumour if it’s cancerous – how much it’s progressed and if it’s metastasised (spread to other areas)
  • The location of the tumour
  • Your overall health

Treatment will usually involve a combination of:

  • Surgery – the main treatment for benign tumours and early malignant tumours
  • Chemotherapy – to kill cancer cells or stop them from multiplying
  • Radiotherapy – high energy radiation is directed at tumour cells to kill them or stop them from multiplying
  • Medication – to help control symptoms such as painkillers, anticonvulsants for seizures and steroids to reduce inflammation

Even if it’s not possible to completely cure a tumour, treatment can be effective to control