Brain tumours

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

A brain tumour forms when cells divide abnormally in your brain. There are many different types of brain tumours, and not all of them are cancerous. Find out about the typical symptoms of brain tumours and how they’re treated.

What is a brain tumour?

A brain tumour is a mass of cells that grow out of control in your brain. It happens when the cells in the brain divide in an abnormal way and continue dividing until a lump is formed.'

This is known as a primary brain tumour because it starts developing in the brain. Some brain tumours spread to the brain from another part of the body – this is called a secondary brain tumour. This article only deals with primary brain tumours.

Types of brain tumour

There are over 130 different types of brain tumours, and these can be grouped into benign and malignant cancers.

Benign brain tumours

Also known as ‘low grade’ tumours, these are non-cancerous and grow slowly. They’re less likely to return after treatment or to spread into other areas of your brain.

Malignant brain tumours

Also known as ‘high grade’ tumours, these are cancerous, fast-growing and more likely to grow back after treatment.

What causes brain tumours?

The exact cause of brain tumours isn’t known, but certain factors can increase your chances of getting one. These include:

  • Age – People aged 75 and over are more likely to get brain tumours, but you can get them at any age

  • Family history – If a close relative, like a sibling, parent or child, has had a brain tumour, you’re at a greater risk of developing one

  • Genetic conditions – A small number of brain tumours are related to rare genetic disorders like Turner syndrome, Gorlin syndrome and tuberous sclerosis (TSC). People with one of these syndromes are at higher risk of brain tumours

  • Radiation – In a small number of cases, exposure to radiation is linked to brain tumours

Brain tumour symptoms

Brain tumour symptoms can vary depending on the type of tumour you have and which part of the brain is affected. They can develop slowly over time if it’s a slow-growing tumour or quickly develop if it’s a fast-growing tumour.

Headaches are one of the most common symptoms, but they’re usually accompanied by at least one of the following symptoms if it’s a brain tumour:

  • Feeling or being sick

  • Headaches that wake you up during the night

  • A new kind of headache that you haven’t experienced before

  • Vision problems, like blind spots or seeing flashing lights

  • Headaches that get progressively worse over time

Other typical brain tumour symptoms include:

  • Seizures (fits)

  • Feeling or being sick

  • Feeling drowsy

  • Losing consciousness

  • Problems with your speech or vision

  • Changes in your mood, behaviour, or personality

Always see a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. Try to remember that these symptoms can often be caused by other medical conditions and are often unrelated to cancer.

Brain tumour diagnosis

Diagnosis usually starts by talking to the GP about your symptoms and medical history. They may do some simple tests of your nervous system, for example:

  • Reflex tests, tapping your knees with a hammer

  • Testing your memory by asking you some simple questions

  • Examining your eyes

  • Testing your hearing

  • Walking tests to assess your balance

The doctor may refer you to a hospital for further tests. In some cases, when symptoms like seizures come on suddenly, you may go straight to accident and emergency.

Tests that you may have in the hospital include:

  • Brain scans – Like MRI, CT and PET scans

  • Brain angiogram – Where a specialist X-ray image is taken of your brain

  • Biopsy – Taking a small sample of tissue from your brain to analyse under a microscope

  • Lumbar puncture – Using a fine needle to check the fluid around your brain and spinal cord

  • Blood tests

Brain tumour treatment

There are various treatments for brain tumours, and the treatment you have will depend on what type of tumour you have, where it is in your brain, its size and whether it has spread and your general health and fitness.

The main types of treatment are:

  • Surgery – This is one of the main treatments for brain tumours, and it can involve removing all or part of your tumour or draining a build-up of fluid on your brain

  • Chemotherapy – Anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs are passed into your bloodstream to destroy cancer cells and disrupt their growth. This can be after surgery, alongside radiotherapy or if a brain tumour comes back after treatment

  • Radiotherapy – A radiotherapy machine rotates around you and uses high-energy X-rays to destroy cancer cells

  • Steroids – These may be recommended to help reduce swelling around the tumour

Additional support

If you have been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour, it can be challenging to come to terms with your illness and challenging for those close to you. But there’s lots of support available. Talk to a doctor about what local support services are available in your area, and contact national cancer charities like Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi