What is a brain tumour? - Standard format (pdf)
Find out more about what brain tumours are, in our full factsheet.
A brain tumour is a lump in the brain which is caused when brain cells divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. What causes brain cells to start growing and dividing differently from healthy cells, forming a 'high grade' (cancerous) or 'low grade' (benign) tumour is not yet understood.
A brain tumour originating in the brain is known as a primary brain tumour. If the tumour started somewhere else in the body e.g. the lung, then spread to the brain, it is known as a secondary brain tumour or 'metastases'. There are over 130 different primary brain and spinal tumours which are grouped and named according to the type of cell they grow from, their location in the brain and how quickly they are likely to grow and spread.
Normal cell division and growth (below):
Abnormal cell division and growth, leading to the development of a tumour (below):
Each year in the UK, approximately 4,300 people are diagnosed with low grade, slow growing brain tumours and 5,000 with high grade fast growing brain tumours. Combined, this represents less than 2 out of every 10,000 people in the UK.
Brain tumours are given a grade from 1 – 4 depending on how they are likely to behave.
Low grade brain tumours are:
High grade brain tumours are:
Brain tumour names can sound long and complicated as they are usually named after the type of cell they grow from and where they are in the brain.
For information on specific tumours, please see our types of brain tumour page, which details treatments, symptoms, types and grades of different brain tumours for adults and children.
Very often, the answer is that we do not know.
The risk factors that we know about are:
Inheriting a gene that may make you more likely to develop a brain tumour is thought to account for around one in 20 brain tumours.
Certain genetic conditions, such as neuro-fibromatosis (NF), may increase your risk of developing a brain tumour.
The risk of developing a meningioma or glioma is higher if you had radiotherapy to the head as a child, particularly before the age of five.
It is important to remember that brain tumours are nobody's fault.
Over 10,600 people are diagnosed with a primary brain tumour each year. This means that 29 people in the UK are diagnosed with a brain tumour every day. It is important to note that other conditions can cause similar signs or symptoms of brain tumours, but it is important to recognise these, so you can go to your doctor if you are concerned.
Your team of specialised health professionals, called the MDT (Multi-Disciplinary Team) will tailor your treatment to provide the treatment that is the best for you. They will consider factors, such as:
This could mean that you meet other patients who have the same tumour but who are receiving different treatments.
For some low grade, slow growing tumours, you may not be given any immediate treatment at all. This is known as watch and wait
Surgery is often used to remove as much of the tumour as possible. This will help to reduce pressure on the brain caused by the tumour itself or by any blockages of cerebrospinal fluid. It is increased pressure that can cause some of the symptoms.
Depending on where in the brain the tumour is, surgery is not always possible or necessary.
These may be used - on their own, in combination or after surgery to try to remove any remaining tumour cells.
Page last reviewed: 05/2014
Next review due: 05/2017
If you have further questions, need to clarify any of the information on this page, or want to find out more about research and clinical trials, please contact our team:
0808 800 0004 (free from landlines and mobiles)
01252 749 999
Phone lines open Mon-Fri, 09:00-17:00
You can also join our active online community on Facebook - find out more about our groups.