More than 9,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with primary brain tumours every year, of which half are cancerous. Although they can be found in people of any age, including children, they tend to be more common in older adults. Many others are diagnosed with secondary brain tumours.
There are two main types of brain tumour: non-cancerous (benign) brain tumours are low grade, which means they grow slowly and are less likely to return after treatment; cancerous (malignant) brain tumours – are high and either start in the brain primary tumours or spread into the brain from elsewhere secondary tumours. They are more likely to grow back after treatment.
There are about 130 different types of brain tumours. They are usually named after the type of cell they develop from. They can also be named after the area of the brain they are growing in.
Brain tumours are graded according to how fast they grow and how likely they are to grow back after treatment. Grade one and two tumours are low grade, and grade three and four tumours are high grade.
The symptoms of a brain tumour vary depending on the exact part of the brain affected.
Common symptoms include:
- severe, persistent headaches
- persistent nausea
- vomiting and drowsiness
- mental or behavioural changes (such as memory problems or changes in personality)
- progressive weakness or paralysis on one 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.
See your GP if you have the symptoms outlined, 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 can't identify a more likely cause of your symptoms, they may refer you to a neurologist for further assessment and tests, such as a brain scan.
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've had cancer have a higher risk of getting a brain tumour in later life; adults who've 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've had radiotherapy, CT 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
- Other riskfactors include HIV or AIDS - compared to the general population, you're about twice as likely to develop a brain tumour if you have HIV or AIDS
You may have tests to diagnose or find out more about a primary brain tumour. Some people have these while they are in hospital. But you can usually have tests as an outpatient and go home shortly after.
Tests will include a range of brain scans and xrays. Biopsies may also be taken of part of the tumour, and patients will also have series of blood tests.
Surgery is often used to remove brain tumours. The aim is to remove as much abnormal tissue as safely as possible. It isn't 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.
Medicines may also be used to relieve symptoms like headaches, seizures and vomiting. 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.
If you have any concerns about the signs and symptoms of brain cancer, please visit your GP.