Brain tumours

A brain tumour is a growth of cells in the brain that multiplies in an abnormal, uncontrollable way.

Grades and types of brain tumour

Brain tumours are graded according to how fast they grow and how likely they are to grow back after treatment.

Grade 1 and 2 tumours are low grade, and grade 3 and 4 tumours are high grade.

There are 2 main types of brain tumour:

  • non-cancerous (benign) brain tumours – are low grade (grade 1 or 2), which means they grow slowly and are less likely to return after treatment
  • cancerous (malignant) brain tumours – are high grade (grade 3 or 4) and either start in the brain (primary tumours) or spread into the brain from elsewhere (secondary tumours); they're more likely to grow back after treatment

The Cancer Research UK website also has more information about specific types of brain tumours.

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Symptoms of a brain tumour

The symptoms of a brain tumour vary depending on the exact part of the brain affected.

Common symptoms include:

  • severe, persistent headaches
  • fits (seizures)
  • persistently feeling sick (nausea), being sick (vomiting) and drowsiness
  • mental or behavioural changes, such as memory problems or changes in personality
  • progressive weakness or paralysis on 1 side of the body
  • vision or speech problems

Sometimes you may not have any symptoms to begin with or they may only develop very slowly over time.

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When to see a GP

See a GP if you have the above symptoms, particularly if you have a severe and persistent headache.

You may not have a brain tumour, but these types of symptoms should be checked out.

If your GP cannot identify a more likely cause of your symptoms, they may refer you to a neurologist (a brain and nervous system specialist) for further assessment and tests, such as a brain scan.

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Who's affected

Brain tumours can affect people of any age, including children, although they tend to be more common in older adults.

More than 9,000 people are diagnosed with primary brain tumours in the UK each year, of which about half are cancerous. Many others are diagnosed with secondary brain tumours.

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Causes and risks

The cause of most brain tumours is unknown, but there are a number of risk factors that may increase your chances of developing a brain tumour.

Risk factors include:

  • age – the risk of getting a brain tumour increases with age, although some types of brain tumour are more common in children 
  • previous cancers – children who have had cancer have a higher risk of getting a brain tumour in later life; adults who have had leukaemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma also have an increased risk
  • radiation – exposure to radiation accounts for a very small number of brain tumours; some types of brain tumour are more common in people who have had radiotherapyCT scans or X-rays to the head  
  • family history and genetic conditions – some genetic conditions are known to increase the risk of getting a brain tumour, including tuberous sclerosis, neurofibromatosis type 1, neurofibromatosis type 2 and Turner syndrome
  • HIV or AIDS – compared with the general population, you're about twice as likely to develop a brain tumour if you have HIV or AIDS 

The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the risks and causes of brain tumours.

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Treating brain tumours

If you have a brain tumour, your treatment will depend on:

  • the type of tumour
  • where it is in your brain
  • how big it is and how far it's spread
  • how abnormal the cells are
  • your overall level of health and fitness

Treatments for brain tumours include:

After being diagnosed with a brain tumour, steroids may be prescribed to help reduce swelling around the tumour.

Surgery is often used to remove brain tumours. The aim is to remove as much abnormal tissue as safely as possible.

It's not always possible to remove all of the tumour, so further treatment with radiotherapy or chemotherapy may be needed to treat any abnormal cells left behind.

Treatment for non-cancerous tumours is often successful and a full recovery is possible.

Sometimes there's a small chance the tumour could return, so you may need regular follow-up appointments to monitor this.

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The Cancer Research UK website has more information about treatment for brain tumours.

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If you have a brain tumour, your outlook will depend on a number of factors.

These include:

  • your age
  • the type of tumour you have
  • where it is in your brain
  • how effective the treatment is
  • your general level of health

Survival rates are difficult to predict because brain tumours are rare and there are many different types.

Your doctor will be able to give you more information about your outlook.

Generally, around 15 out of every 100 people with a cancerous brain tumour will survive for 5 years or more after being diagnosed.

The Cancer Research UK website has more information about survival rates for different types of brain tumour.

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