A brain or spinal cord tumour occurs when abnormal cells grow and form a mass or a lump. The tumour may be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous), but both types can be serious and may need urgent treatment.
A brain tumour may be a primary or a secondary cancer. Cancer that first develops in the brain is called a primary brain cancer. It rarely spreads to other parts of the body, but may spread to other parts of the brain.
Sometimes cancer starts in another part of the body and then travels through the bloodstream to the brain. This is known as secondary cancer or metastasis.
On this page you will find information on:
- Types of brain tumours
- How common are brain tumours?
- What are the risk factors?
- What are the symptoms?
- How are brain tumours diagnosed?
- What is the treatment for brain tumours?
- What is the prognosis?
- What support is available?
Types of brain tumours
There are more than 40 types of primary brain and spinal cord tumours. These are classified based on the type of cell and how the cells are likely to behave.
Benign and malignant tumours
Tumours are often classified as benign (not cancer, slow-growing and unlikely to spread) or malignant (cancer, faster-growing with potential to spread).
A slow-growing brain tumour that is unlikely to spread could be called benign. Other slow-growing brain tumours are called low-grade. These grow slowly but can spread through the brain. Benign tumours in certain areas of the brain can still be life-threatening and may require urgent treatment.
Malignant (cancerous) tumours are life-threatening and can grow rapidly. They may spread within the brain and spinal cord, or come back soon after treatment. However, some malignant tumours respond well to treatment.
How common are brain tumours?
Around 341 Queenslanders are diagnosed with malignant brain tumours every year. Benign brain and spinal cord tumours are more common than malignant tumours
What are the risks factors?
The causes of most brain and spinal cord tumours are unknown. However, there are a couple of known risk factors for brain tumours:
- Family history – In rare cases, a fault in the genes, usually passed down from one parent, can increase the risk of developing a brain tumour. For example, some people have a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis which can lead to tumours of the neurons.
- Radiation Therapy – In rare cases, people who have had radiation therapy to the head, particularly to treat childhood leukaemia may be at an increased risk of developing a tumour.
What are the symptoms?
In some cases, a brain tumour grows slowly and symptoms develop gradually, so you may not be aware that anything is wrong at first. In other cases, symptoms appear suddenly.
Many symptoms of brain tumours are more likely to be caused by other factors. However, any new, persistent or worsening symptoms should be reported to your doctor.
General symptoms – brain tumour symptoms may be caused by increased pressure in the skull. Pressure can build up because the tumour itself is taking up too much space or because it is blocking the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain.
Intercranial pressure can lead to symptoms such as:
- Headaches – often worse when you wake up.
- Nausea and vomiting – often worse in the morning or after changing position.
- Confusion and irritability.
- Blurred or double vision.
- Seizures (fits) – can be obvious, involving a loss of consciousness, or more subtle, such as ‘zoning out’.
- Weakness in parts of the body.
- Drowsiness – a later symptom.
Other symptoms relate to where in the brain or spinal cord the tumour is located. See Understanding Brain Tumours booklet for more information.
How are brain tumours diagnosed?
Many people diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumour first go to see their general practitioner (GP) because they are feeling unwell. Occasionally a brain tumour will be found during a scan for something unrelated, such as a head injury. Some people have sudden symptoms (such as loss of consciousness, a severe headache or a seizure) and go straight to the hospital’s emergency department.
The doctor will ask you about your symptoms, and will do a physical examination. You may then have one or more of these scans/tests:
- Physical examination – your doctor will assess your nervous system to check how different parts of the brain and body are working, including your speech, hearing, vision and movement
- MRI scan
- CT scan
Further tests include:
- MRS scan – looks for changes in the chemical make-up of the brain.
- MR tractography – helps show the message pathways within the brain.
- MR perfusion scan – shows the amount of blood flowing to various parts of the brain.
- SPECT or SPET scan – takes three-dimensional pictures showing blood flow in the brain.
- PET Scan.
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) – uses a needle to collect cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal column.
- Surgical Biopsy – tissue is removed and is examined by a pathologist.
- Genetic tests – special tests on cells from the tumour to look for gene changes.
Some tests may be repeated during or after treatment to check how well the treatment is working. Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
What is the treatment for brain tumours?
The main treatments for brain or spinal cord tumours are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. These may be used alone or in combination. Medication, such as steroids or anticonvulsants (anti-seizure medication), may be given to reduce symptoms. There also could be new, experimental treatments or improvements in existing treatments.
The aim of the treatment may be to remove the tumour completely, slow its growth, or relieve symptoms by shrinking the tumour and reducing swelling.
Your choice of treatment will depend on:
- The type, size, grade, location and genetic make-up of the tumour.
- Your age, medical history and general state of health.
- The types of symptoms you have.
For more information on the treatment of brain and spinal cord tumours please refer to the Understanding Brain Tumours booklet.
What is the prognosis?
Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for anyone to predict the exact course of the disease.
Both 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 (recur) and may change to higher grade. In this case, treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be used to control the growth of the tumour for as long as possible, relieve symptoms, and maintain quality of life.
What support is available?
Whether you have been diagnosed with a brain tumour, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.
Find out more about:
- Phone support
- Email support
- Cancer counselling
- Practical and financial support
- Support groups
- Information sessions
You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.
Visit our community resources page for information session videos on brain tumours.