SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Brain tumours can affect adults and children of all ages.
- Brain tumours can be malignant or benign.
- There are more than 40 types of primary brain and spinal cord tumours. The most common category are glioma tumours, which develop from glial cells.
- Symptoms and treatment depend on which part of the brain or spinal cord is affected.
What is a brain tumour?
The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). Together, the different parts of the CNS control the activities of the mind and body.
A brain or spinal cord tumour occurs when abnormal cells grow and form a mass or a lump. They are classified as benign or malignant. These terms are also used for tumours in other parts of the body, but with brain tumours the difference is not as clear. Both types can be serious and may need urgent treatment.
Every year an estimated 2,000 malignant brain tumours are diagnosed in Australia and they can affect people of any age. About 100 children (aged 0–14) are diagnosed each year.
Benign brain and spinal cord tumours are more common than malignant tumours.
Brain tumour symptoms
Symptoms depend on where the tumour is in the brain or spinal cord, and how quickly it is growing.
Brain tumours can increase pressure inside the skull, which can lead to general symptoms including:
- – often worse when you wake up.
- Nausea and vomiting – often worse in the morning or after changing position (such as moving from sitting to standing).
- Confusion and irritability.
- Blurred or double vision.
- Seizures (fits) – some jerking or twitching of your hands, arms or legs, or it can affect the whole body.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Weakness in parts of the body.
- Drowsiness – a later symptom.
Not everyone with these symptoms has a brain or spinal cord tumour. If you have any of these symptoms or are worried, see your doctor.
Types of brain tumours
There are more than 40 types of primary brain and spinal cord tumours. They can start in any part of the brain or spinal cord.
- Astrocytoma – most common type of glioma, which starts in glial cells called astrocytes.
- Ependymoma – starts in glial cells called ependymal cells, more common in children than adults.
- Glioblastoma (GBM) – a type of high-grade astrocytoma that makes up more than half of all gliomas, common in adults and children.
- Oligoastrocytoma – mixed glioma tumour that contains both oligodendroglioma and astrocytoma.
- Oligodendroglioma – starts in glial cells called oligodendrocytes, more common in children than adults.
Medulloblastoma – high-grade tumour that starts in the cerebellum, more common in children and rarer in adults.
- – common primary brain tumour that starts in the membranes (meninges) covering the brain and spinal cord, usually benign and slow growing.
- – starts in the pituitary gland, usually benign
- Schwannoma – starts in Schwann cells which surround nerves in the brain, usually benign (includes ).
Brain tumour risk factors
There are some things that can make it more likely to develop a brain or spinal cord tumour. These are called risk factors and they include:
Having these risk factors doesn’t mean you will develop a brain or spinal cord tumour. Often there is no clear reason for getting a brain or spinal cord tumour. If you are worried about your risk factors, ask your doctor for advice.
Diagnosing brain tumours
- Physical examination – the doctor will assess your nervous system to check how different parts of your brain and body are working, including your speech, hearing, vision and movement.
- – to check your overall health.
- – uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body.
- – uses x-rays to take many pictures of the inside of the body and then compiles them into detailed, cross-sectional pictures.
Your doctor might ask you to have further tests. These may include:
- MRS scan – a specialised type of MRI that looks for changes in the chemicals in the brain.
- MR tractography – helps show the message pathways within the brain. It can help plan treatment for gliomas.
- MR perfusion scan – shows the amount of blood flowing to various parts of the brain. It can also be used to help identify the type of tumour.
- SPET or SPECT scan – shows blood flow in the brain. Areas with higher blood flow, such as a tumour, will show up brighter on the scan.
- – you will be injected with a small amount of radioactive solution, which helps cancer cells show up brighter on the scan.
- Lumbar puncture (also called a spinal tap) - uses a needle to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal column, which is then checked for cancer cells.
- – if scans show an abnormality that looks like a tumour, some or all the tissue may be removed for examination.
- – every kind of cancer (including a brain tumour), changes the genes of the affected cells. These gene faults are not the same thing as genes passed through families. A pathologist may run special tests on tumour cells to look for these gene changes, which can help your doctors tailor treatment.
Brain tumour grades and stages
The grade of the cancer means how quickly a cancer might grow. Knowing the grade helps your doctor work out the best treatment plan for you. The grading system commonly used for brain tumours is from the .
Brain and spinal cord tumours are usually given a grade from 1 to 4.
- Grade 1 – These tumours are low-grade and grow slowly.
- Grade 2 – These tumours are low-grade and usually grow slowly. They are more likely to come back after treatment and can develop into a higher-grade tumour.
- Grades 3 and 4 – These tumours are high-grade and grow faster and are called malignant. They can spread to other parts of the brain and tend to recur, often as a higher grade.
The stage of a cancer means how far it has grown in your body. Primary brain and spinal cord tumours are not staged in this way as most don’t spread to other parts of the body.
Brain tumour prognosis and survival rates
When someone is diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumour, their doctor will give them a prognosis. A prognosis is the doctor’s opinion of how likely the cancer will spread and the chances of getting better.
A prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as the person’s age and general health.
Low-grade and high-grade tumours can be life-threatening, but the prognosis may be better if the tumour is low grade, or if the surgeon is able to remove the entire tumour.
Some brain or spinal cord tumours (particularly gliomas) can come back and may change into a higher-grade tumour.
If you have a brain or spinal cord tumour, your doctor will talk to you about your individual situation when working out your prognosis. Every person’s experience is different, and there is support available to you.
Brain tumour treatment
Treatment for a brain or spinal tumour depends on various factors and may take into account:
- aim of treatment – to remove, slow its growth or relieve symptoms
- nature of the tumour
- your general health.
- remove the whole tumour (total resection)
- remove part of the tumour (partial resection or debulking)
- help diagnose a brain tumour.
Different types of operations may be used for brain and spinal cord tumours. These include:
- – to remove a brain tumour.
- Awake craniotomy – to remove a tumour that is near parts of the brain that control speech or movement.
- Endoscopic transsphenoidal surgery – to remove a pituitary tumour.
- – to remove a spinal cord tumour.
Sometimes a tumour cannot be safely removed because it is too close to certain parts of the brain and surgery would cause blindness or partial paralysis. This is called an inoperable or unresectable tumour.
uses a controlled dose of radiation to kill or damage cancer cells in the area being treated. Treatment is carefully planned to do as little harm as possible to the healthy body tissue near the cancer.
Radiation therapy is typically given after surgery and possibly along with chemotherapy (chemoradiation).
is the use of drugs to treat cancer. The drugs travel through the bloodstream and damage or destroy rapidly dividing cells such as cancer cells, while causing the least possible damage to healthy cells.
You may have chemotherapy after surgery and possibly with radiation therapy (chemoradiation).
are made naturally in the body, but they can also be produced artificially and used as drugs. Brain tumours and their treatments can both lead to swelling in the brain. Steroids may help to reduce this swelling, and can be given before, during and after surgery and radiation therapy.
Treatment side effects
All cancer treatments can have side effects. Your treatment team will discuss these with you before you start treatment. Talk to your treating team about any side effects you are experiencing.
Managing lifestyle changes when you have a brain tumour
A range of therapies can support you in your recovery, including:
A brain tumour or its treatment can sometimes cause seizures (fits). They can involve the whole body, or just affect one area ( such as an arm or leg).
Seizures can often be prevented with medicines. Feeling very tired can also increase your risk of having a seizure. Try to get enough sleep and avoid daytime naps if they make sleeping at night difficult. Limiting or cutting down on alcohol may also help.
Tumours, seizures, and certain treatments and medicines can affect the skills needed to drive safely. These can include:
- having good vision and perception
- being able to concentrate
- being able to remember directions
- good hand–eye coordination.
When you are first diagnosed with a brain tumour, your doctor will probably advise not to drive for a certain period. You may have a driving evaluation to check your ability to return to driving.
In some cases, an occupational therapist can teach you driving techniques to help with weaknesses or how to make changes to your car (such as extra mirrors).
You may also be able to drive with restrictions – such as only in daylight, only in vehicles with automatic transmission, or only short distances from home.
It can be hard to predict how well you will recover from treatment for a brain or spinal cord tumour, and when and whether you will be able to return to work. This may also depend on the type of work you do.
Some people find it hard to concentrate or make decisions after treatment. At least at first, it may not be safe to operate heavy machinery or take on a lot of responsibility.
An can advise you about whether returning to work is safe or possible. They can also give your employer information about whether you could return to work with altered duties or on a part-time basis. In some cases, it won’t be possible to return to your former role.
Having a brain or spinal cord tumour and treatment can change the way you feel about yourself, other people, relationships and sex. These changes can be very upsetting and hard to talk about. Your treating team are very understanding and can give you support. You can also ask for a referral to a counsellor or therapist who specialises in body image, sex and relationships.
Living with advanced cancer
Most people continue to have treatment for advanced cancer as part of palliative care, as it helps manage the cancer and improve their day-to-day lives.
Palliative care treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or another type of treatment. It can help in these ways:
- slow down how fast the cancer is growing
- shrink the cancer
- help you to live more comfortably by managing symptoms, like pain.
Treatment depends on:
- where the cancer started
- how far it has spread
- your general health
- your preferences and what you want to do.
Where to get help
- Tel. – (also available to carers and family members)
- Your treatment team
- on Tel. (or for an interpreter) – can also help carers and family members
- Canteen Tel. – for young people affected by cancer
- helps people affected by cancer find the information, resources and support services they may need following a cancer diagnosis