What is brain cancer?

Primary brain cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the brain. Sometimes cancer starts somewhere else in the body but spreads to the brain. Doctors call this secondary brain cancer or metastatic brain cancer.

Types of brain tumors
Glioma Meningioma Metastatic Brain Cancer

Causes of brain cancer

Experts still aren’t sure what causes brain cancer.

Risk factors for brain cancer

Exposure to environmental toxins, radiation to the head and cigarette smoking could play a role in cases of brain cancer.

Symptoms of brain cancer

The signs of brain cancer can be difficult to notice because they are easy to confuse with symptoms of other types of illness. People with this type of cancer start noticing the symptoms when a tumor grows large enough to press on the brain or to cause swelling in the brain.

When that happens, you may start having symptoms that include:

  • Seizures
  • Headache
  • Feeling weak
  • Difficulty talking
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Having trouble walking
  • Changes in your eyesight
  • Suddenly becoming “clumsy”
  • Changes in thinking processes and concentration

Since all of these symptoms can be signs of other conditions, cancer isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. But if you have symptoms, you should make a note of all of the things you are noticing and tell your doctor.

Diagnosis of brain cancer

If your doctor thinks you have a brain tumor, they will give you a full examination, and then order some tests to confirm the diagnosis, collect information about the size of the tumor and see if it spread to other parts of your body, too.

There are several different ways to test for brain cancer, but the most common tests are:

Neurological examination

This checks things like your vision and hearing and sees if your balance, strength, reflexes and coordination are normal. This helps tell your doctor which area of the brain the tumor affects.


Scans or imaging tests help find or diagnose brain tumors. They may include MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging; computerized tomography, or CT; or, in some cases, positron emission tomography. These are tests that take detailed pictures of the brain. MRIs are the type of scan doctors use most often.


A biopsy takes a sample of tissue so doctors can look at it under a microscope and see if it is cancerous or not. Sometimes doctors do the biopsies at the same time as the surgery to remove the tumor, and sometimes they do it separately with a needle.

Doctors use the needle biopsy when the tumor is in a place that is hard to reach or is in an important part of the brain. If this needs to be done, a neurosurgeon drills a hole into your skull and then puts a needle in the hole to take a small sample of tissue.

Your doctor might also run tests to see if you have cancer in other parts of your body and to make sure it didn’t spread from cancer that started somewhere else.

Treatments for brain cancer

The treatment plan your doctor chooses for you depends on several different things. This includes how large the tumor is, its location, what kind of tumor it is and how healthy you are.

If it is in a place that’s easy to reach, you could have surgery to remove it, but if that’s not safe for you, some other treatments you may have are:

  • Radiation therapy — uses high-energy beams to kill the cancer cells, this is usually with a machine, but sometimes doctors place the radiation inside your body.
  • Radiosurgery — uses radiation beams targeting the tumor in a small area of your brain, in most cases, only one treatment of radiosurgery is necessary.
  • Chemotherapy — usually in the form of a pill to treat brain cancer, doctors may use other forms of chemotherapy drugs instead, depending on the kind of brain cancer found.
  • Targeted drug therapy — uses drugs that kill off cancer cells.

With so many options for treating brain cancer, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about which one is best for you.

Recovery from brain cancer

How long it takes to recover from brain cancer depends on if the cancer or treatment affected parts of your brain. You may need help regaining muscle strength, or you may need speech therapy if it affected the part of your brain that controls speech.

It is important to work with your doctor and complete all therapy they want you to take for you to have the best recovery possible.

Find a brain cancer specialist nearby

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