You can get a brain tumour at any age but they’re more common after you reach 50. Children can also get brain tumours – about 300 children are diagnosed each year. In fact, they’re the second most common type of childhood cancer after leukaemia.
If brain tumours develop from normal cells in your brain, they’re called primary brain tumours. If the cancer spreads from another part of your body, it’s called a secondary brain tumour. And, this spread of cancer is called metastasis. We’ll focus on primary brain tumours here.
There are different types of brain tumour that are usually named after the type of brain cell they develop from. They can also be named after the area of the brain where they’re growing. We describe the most common types below.
These are the most common type of brain tumour. They grow from glial cells, which support the nerve cells in your brain. The most common types of glioma are:
- astrocytomas and glioblastomas
About one in five brain tumours in adults is a meningioma. These tumours start in the layers of tissue that cover your brain (the meninges) and are more often benign.
About one in 10 brain tumours develops in the pituitary gland – a gland in your body that produces natural chemicals called hormones. These are called adenomas and are usually benign.
Medulloblastoma usually develops in the cerebellum, which is at the back of your brain. It rarely affects adults but is the most common brain tumour in children.
The exact symptoms you’ll have will depend on things like the size of the tumour and where it is in your brain.
Symptoms you can get as a result of increased pressure on your brain from the tumour include:
- headaches – these are often worse at night and early in the morning but may wear off as the day goes on
- feeling sick or vomiting
- blurred vision
Symptoms you can get as a result of the position of the tumour in your brain, which can affect how it functions, include:
- seizures (fits) – you might lose consciousness
- problems walking
- feeling weak on one side of your body
- problems with speaking, your sight, hearing, or your sense of smell
- changes in your personality, memory or mental ability
These symptoms aren't always caused by a brain tumour, but if you have them and they last for a while, contact your GP.
Remember headaches are extremely common and brain tumours are very rare – most headaches aren’t caused by brain tumours.
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. They’ll do some tests to assess your reflexes, co-ordination, muscle strength, memory and vision too.
Your GP may refer you to see a neurologist, a doctor who specialises in conditions that affect the nervous system, or to a neurosurgeon.
You might need to have some more tests to confirm if you have a brain tumour, and to find out what type you have.
- Blood tests – these assess your general health and check for specific chemical markers in your blood.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan – this uses magnets and radio waves to produce images of the inside of your brain.
- Computerised tomography (CT) scan – this uses X-rays to make a three-dimensional image of your brain.
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) – this uses electrodes that are attached to your scalp to record your brain activity to look for anything unusual.
Brain tumour grading
You may need to have a biopsy to find out the type and grade of your tumour. Your doctor will use your CT and MRI scans to accurately find the position of the tumour and remove a small sample of tissue. They’ll send this to a laboratory to be tested. They might do this as part of an operation to treat a brain tumour.
This sample will be graded from one to four, based on how fast your tumour is likely to be growing. Grade one is a low-grade, slow-growing tumour that’s the least likely to spread and four is malignant and the most likely to spread. Doctors can also test the genetic information of your tumour, which may guide them in deciding which treatment is best for you.
Different brain tumours develop in different ways. Your treatment will vary depending on which type you have, how advanced it is, and where it is in your brain. Your doctor will discuss what your treatment options are and give you advice and information.
You’ll be treated by a multidisciplinary team that includes a range of healthcare professionals. These will include neurologists, neurosurgeons, clinical oncologists (doctors who treat cancer using X-rays and medicines) and specialist nurses who support you through diagnosis and treatment.
If your tumour is slow-growing and you don’t have many symptoms, you might not need any treatment straight away. Your healthcare team will monitor you closely and you’ll have routine check-ups and scans. This is called active monitoring or watchful waiting.
The aim of surgery is to remove as much of the tumour as possible. For some types of brain tumour this can cure them. And for others, it can slow down the growth of tumours and help to ease your symptoms.
You may be able to have open surgery, which is called a craniotomy, or keyhole surgery. This will depend on the type of brain tumour you have, as well as its size and position. If you have a pituitary tumour, your surgeon may be able to remove it through your nose, which is called transsphenoidal surgery.
You’ll usually be given a general anaesthetic during these operations, which means you’ll be asleep. But you might need to be awake for the procedure if your surgeon needs to check how your brain is working during the operation. This is important if your surgeon is removing tumours from areas of your brain that control functions such as movement, feeling and speech.
Radiotherapy uses a targeted beam of radiation to destroy your tumour while aiming to minimise any damage to your surrounding healthy tissue. You usually have radiotherapy after surgery to kill any remaining tumour cells, but sometimes you can have it as an alternative to surgery.
You may have radiotherapy everyday over two to six weeks, or as a single very highly focused treatment called radiosurgery. Another name for this type of radiotherapy is stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) or stereotactic radiotherapy (SRT), which you might hear called cyberknife or gamma knife treatment.
Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. Only a few chemotherapy medicines work for brain tumours. The ones that are most commonly used are temozolomide, or a combination of, or just one of, the medicines procarbazine, lomustine and vincristine.
You might have chemotherapy on its own or in combination with other treatments. Temozolomide tablets are often used alongside radiotherapy to treat brain tumours called glioblastomas. You might also have this treatment if your tumour comes back after having other types of chemotherapy.
When your surgeon removes your tumour, they might put small implants called wafers into the affected area of your brain. These will release chemotherapy medicines to kill any remaining cancer cells.
Steroids are hormones (chemicals) that your body makes to help reduce swelling. Synthetic (man-made) steroids can help to reduce swelling from your brain tumour, surgery or radiotherapy.
New treatments for brain tumours are being tested in clinical trials all the time. You might be able to take part in a clinical trial to test one of these new treatments – ask your doctor for information.
Doctors don’t know the exact reasons why people develop a brain tumour yet. But there are a number of things that might increase your risk of getting a brain tumour, which include:
- having an inherited disease – for example, neurofibromatosis (a condition that affects the development and growth of nerve cells)
- being exposed to high doses of radiation – if you have radiotherapy to your head as treatment for another cancer, for example
- your age – the older you are, the more likely you are to get a brain tumour
- having a weakened immune system – if you have HIV/AIDS, or take medicines that suppress your immune system, for example
There’s no evidence that mobile phones can cause brain tumours but research is ongoing to test this.
Being diagnosed with a brain tumour can come as a huge shock and it can naturally be distressing for both you and your family.
Dealing with the emotional aspects, as well as the physical symptoms, is an important part of treatment. Specialist cancer doctors and nurses are experts in providing the support you need. You may also find it helpful to see a counsellor.
There are also support groups where you can get in touch with other people with brain tumours. You can get tips from others who are going through a similar thing to you and share tips on how to cope. See our Related information for tips and advice too.
No, there isn’t any evidence yet to show that mobile phones can cause brain tumours but researchers continue to look into it.
Mobile phones give out and receive radio waves, which can heat up your body. There are guidelines to make sure mobile phones sold in the UK don’t expose anyone to harmful levels of radio waves.
The research on mobile phones and health to date still doesn’t show any convincing evidence to suggest mobile phones will cause you any harm. Yet mobile phones are a fairly recent invention so researchers can't be absolutely sure that they don't cause any health problems, particularly if they’re used over a long period of time. For this reason, try to keep any calls on your mobile phone as short as possible to minimise the amount of radio waves that you're exposed to.
If you have children under 16, don’t let them use a mobile phone a great deal – ideally limit them to making just essential calls. Their brains and nervous systems are still developing, so exposure to radio waves could potentially have a greater effect on them.
Treatment for a brain tumour can be successful but it’s possible it might come back.
If your brain tumour comes back, you might be able to have surgery to remove it. This will depend on things like the type and size of the tumour and how quickly it's growing. It will also depend on whether it has spread within your brain or to your spinal cord, as well as your general health.
It's usually possible to have chemotherapy if your tumour has come back. Even if you’ve had it before, you may be able to try again, perhaps taking a different medicine.
You can’t always have radiotherapy again if the brain tumour is in the same area as before. This is because it could cause too much damage to healthy areas around the tumour, although your surgeon may consider giving you more targeted radiotherapy. If the tumour has come back in a different part of your brain, you might be able to have more radiotherapy.
If you’ve already tried all treatment options and they haven’t got rid of the tumour, you can have treatment to help control your symptoms.
You’ll need to have regular check-ups after you’ve finished your treatment. You might need to have different tests, including scans, but this will depend on your condition and what treatment you had.
It's not possible for doctors to predict exactly when or if your brain tumour will come back. Therefore, you’ll need to have regular check-ups after you have finished treatment, even if the tumour was benign (non-cancerous) and didn’t spread out of your brain.
The check-ups may be with your oncologist (a doctor who specialises in cancer care), surgeon or another specialist.
When you go for your check-up, they may examine you and talk to you about whether you’ve had any symptoms. You may also need to have a CT or MRI scan.
If your brain tumour does come back, you may get similar symptoms to the ones you had with the first tumour. But you might get these symptoms for many other reasons. Always tell your doctor everything, no matter how insignificant you may feel it is. If your treatment has been a success, as time goes by you may need to have check-ups less often.
As soon as you’ve been diagnosed with a brain tumour, you must stop driving and contact the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). They’ll let you know when it's safe to start driving again.
If you have a brain tumour, you're required by law to let the DVLA know. This is because there’s a risk of having fits with a brain tumour, which could affect your vision and therefore your ability to drive.
You won't be allowed to drive until the medical department at the DVLA, or your doctor, confirms that you're safe to do so. This is for your safety and that of other road users. The DVLA may need to contact your doctor to come to a decision about how long it will be unsafe for you to drive. Once this time has passed you will probably be able to drive again, but you may need to pass a medical assessment. This may test your sight if it’s been affected by your brain tumour, and how well you can control a vehicle.
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Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, March 2016
Peer-reviewed by Mr Paul Grundy, Consultant Neurosurgeon
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