What is brain cancer?
Brain cancers include primary brain tumours, which start in the brain and almost never spread to other parts of the body, and secondary tumours (or metastases), which are caused by cancers that began in another part of the body.
There are more than 40 major types of brain tumours, which are grouped into two main types:
- benign - slow-growing and unlikely to spread. Common types are meningiomas, neuromas, pituitary tumours and craniopharyngiomas.
- malignant - cancerous and able to spread into other parts of the brain or spinal cord. Common types include astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, glioblastomas and mixed gliomas.
It is estimated that more than 1,900 people were diagnosed with brain cancer in 2022. The average age at diagnosis is 59 years old.
Brain cancer signs and symptoms
Headaches are often the first symptom of a brain tumour. The headaches can be mild, severe, persistent, or come and go. A headache isn't always a brain tumour but if you're worried, be sure to see your GP.
Other symptoms include:
seizures: severe (e.g. a convulsion) or mild (a fleeting disturbance of awareness, sensation or jerking muscles)
weakness or paralysis in part of the body
loss of balance
general irritability, drowsiness or a change in personality
nausea and vomiting
disturbed vision, hearing, smell or taste.
Causes of brain cancer
Some factors that can increase your risk of brain cancer include:
some brain and spinal cord tumours are more common in people with certain inherited or genetic conditions
people exposed to very high doses of radiation to the head.
Diagnosis of brain cancer
If a brain tumour is suspected, the doctor may check how different parts of the brain are functioning by checking your reflexes, muscle strength, balance and coordination, ability to feel pin-pricks and to distinguish between hot and cold. An ophthalmoscope is used to view the optic nerve, which may bulge if the pressure in the skull is raised, for example by a tumour.
The main tests for brain cancer diagnosis are:
A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-rays to take multiple pictures of the inside of the body.
A MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses a computer and a powerful magnet to make cross-sectional pictures of your body.
MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy)
A MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy) scan looks for changes in the chemical make-up of the brain and can be done at the same time as an MRI.
A PET (positron emission tomography) scan injects a small amount of radioactive solution to show up cancer cells as they absorb the solution faster than normal cells.
SPECT (single proton emission computerised tomography)
A single photon emission CT (SPECT) scan takes three-dimensional images of blood flow in the brain and areas with higher blood flow, such as a tumour, will be brighter on the scan.
A lumbar puncture (also known as spinal tap) uses a needle to collect cerebrospinal fluid which will be sent to a laboratory to test for cancer cells.
After a diagnosis of brain cancer
After finding out you have brain cancer, you may feel shocked, upset, anxious or confused. These are normal responses. A diagnosis of brain cancer affects each person differently. For most it will be a difficult time, however some people manage to continue with their normal daily activities.
Your specialist will arrange for a range of health professionals (multidisciplinary team) to plan your treatment. This will be based on several factors including the type, size, location and genetic make-up of the cancer as well as, your age and general health, the types of symptoms you have and your needs and preferences.
Find out more about the best cancer care for brain cancer:
Treatment for brain cancer
Brain tumours may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or steroid therapy, or a combination of these treatments.
Some tumours can be removed completely by surgery (craniotomy). Post-operative radiotherapy improves local control and survival. For glioblastomas, temozolomide may be added during or after radiotherapy to further improve outcomes.
If a tumour cannot be removed, the aim of treatment is to slow growth and relieve symptoms by shrinking the tumour and any swelling around it. Treatment options include radiation therapy with or without temozolomide.
Based on the results of MRI, CT scans and other tests, your doctor will tell you the stage of the cancer. Staging describes the size of the cancer and if and how far it has spread beyond the brain.
Brain tumours are usually graded on a scale of 1 to 4, based on how quickly they are growing and their ability to invade nearby tissue: grades 1 and 2 are the slowest growing and are called low-grade tumours; grade 4 is the fastest growing.
In some cases of brain cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer.
As well as slowing the spread of brain cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.
Treatment TeamDepending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:
- GP (General Practitioner) - looks after your general health and works with your specialists to coordinate treatment.
- neurologist- diagnoses and treats diseases of the brain and nervous system.
- neurosurgeon- uses surgery to treat brain diseases and injuries.
- Cancer nurse - assists with treatment and provides information and support throughout your treatment.
- Medical oncologist - prescribes and coordinates the course of chemotherapy.
- Radiation oncologist - prescribes and coordinates radiation therapy treatment.
- Other allied health professionals - such as social workers, pharmacists, and counsellors.
Screening for brain cancer
There is currently no national screening program for brain cancer available in Australia.
Preventing brain cancer
There are no proven measures to prevent brain cancer.
Prognosis for brain cancer
Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. An individual's prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis.
For benign tumours that can be completely removed, cure is likely. For malignant tumours, outcomes depend on how slowly or quickly the tumour develops and responds to treatment.
- Understanding Brain Tumours, Cancer Council Australia ©2020. Last medical review of source booklet: May 2020.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer data in Australia. Canberra: AIHW, 2022.
This information was last updated January 2023.
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