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What is a brain tumour?

A brain tumour is a mass, or lump in the brain which is caused when brain cells divide and grow in an uncontrolled way.

What is a brain tumour?

The cells in our body grow, divide and multiply to help with our body’s natural processes, such as damage repair, and to replace old cells. But, sometimes mistakes can be made during cell growth and division. and abnormal cells are formed.

Usually, the body’s natural defence mechanisms destroy these abnormal cells, but occasionally the abnormal cells grow, multiply and form a lump of cells. This is called a tumour. When this happens in the brain, a primary brain tumour is formed.

Brain tumours can be:

  • primary brain tumours, that start growing within the brain
  • secondary brain tumours, that start growing somewhere else in the body and then spread to the brain. These are also known as metastases.

Brain tumours are also graded from 1-4 according to how fast they grow and how likely they are to spread within the brain. Tumours graded 1 or 2 are called low grade tumours and are non-cancerous. Tumours graded 3 or 4 are called high grade tumours and are cancerous. 

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There are over 150 different primary brain and spinal tumours. They are grouped and named according to the type of cell they grow from, their location in the brain and their grade.

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How common are brain tumours?

Take a look at the distribution of brain tumours across England by local authority and by year using BRIAN’s Incidence on a Map insight.

How common are brain tumours?

BRIAN is our trusted online app where you can track your experience, compare it with others who’ve been there and get the knowledge you need to make informed decisions.

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What are the symptoms of a brain tumour?

As our brains control everything about our bodies, the symptoms caused by a brain tumour can be wide-ranging.

When a tumour grows it can block the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) around the brain, leading to increased pressure within the brain. This can cause generalised symptoms, such as headaches, nausea or seizures.

The tumour can also cause damage to the brain by directly pressing on the surrounding cells. As different areas of the brain control different functions, a tumour will cause different symptoms according to where it is in the brain.

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How is a brain tumour treated?

This will depend on what type of brain tumour you have, what grade it is and where it is in the brain.

Generally, treatment for brain tumours is surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of these.

However, some slow-growing, low grade tumours that are causing minimal effects will not be given any immediate treatment, because the treatments can cause more side-effects than the tumour. Instead you’ll be put on active monitoring (sometimes called watch and wait).

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What causes brain tumours?

It’s important to remember that there’s nothing you could have done, or not done, to prevent a brain tumour.

Why some brain cells start growing uncontrollably is not yet fully understood, but we do know there are some risk factors.

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How long can I live with a brain tumour?

This is almost impossible to answer. The prognosis for brain tumours varies widely from person to person. It depends on a lot of factors, such as the:

  • type of brain tumour
  • grade of brain tumour
  • location of the tumour within the brain
  • success of surgery (where used)
  • the tumour’s reaction to treatment
  • the tumour’s molecular/genetic make-up (to a certain extent)
  • age of the person affected
  • individual biology and general health of the person affected.

So even someone with the same tumour as you who’s having similar treatment, may have a different prognosis.

Your doctor cannot be absolutely certain about what will happen to you. They can only give you an estimate, based on your tumour type and current situation, but they may not be able to predict other factors, such as how well you might respond to treatment. This is why prognosis is often an ongoing process, revised at different stages in your journey.

It’s important to remember that statistics and averages cannot tell you what will happen to you specifically.

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Frequently asked questions

What's the difference between a brain tumour and brain cancer?

Not all brain tumours are types of brain cancer.

Brain tumours are graded 1-4 according to their behaviour such as their speed of growth and how likely they are to spread. These grades are then split into low grade (1-2) and high grade (3-4), with low grade tumours defined as non-cancerous and high grade tumours defined as cancerous.

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How do brain tumours form?

Cells are the basic building blocks of all living things. The human body is composed of trillions of cells.

Normally, when a cell divides, it has to copy its genes to put into the new cell. However, mistakes can sometimes be made when copying the genes. These mistakes are called mutations.

Many mutations don't have any obvious effect, but if a mistake happens in a gene that helps to control how a cell grows and divides, it can cause the cell to grow uncontrollably and a tumour to grow.

It's important to know that these types of mutation are mistakes found only in the tumour cells and not in the egg or sperm cells that make up a baby. This means they will not be inherited by your children.

How common are brain tumours?

More than 11,700 people are diagnosed with a primary brain tumour each year and 29 people in the UK are diagnosed with a brain tumour every day. They are much more common in adults than children – of the 11,700 diagnosed each year, around 500 are children.

It’s important to note that other conditions can cause similar signs or symptoms of brain tumours, but it’s important to recognise these, so you can go to your doctor if you’re concerned.

What research is being done into brain tumours?

Research, including pioneering programmes funded by The Brain Tumour Charity, is gradually discovering which genes are involved in causing different types of brain tumour to develop in the first place, as well as their ongoing growth.

This will hopefully lead to discovering what causes the mistakes in the genes to happen and also to treatments that are tailored to the genetic make-up of each person's tumour.

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