Cancer Types

Brain Cancer

Information about brain cancer.

What is brain cancer?

Brain cancer occurs when cancer cells grow in brain tissue. They can grow to form a mass (tumour) that can interfere with brain function.

Brain tumours can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). The information here is about cancerous tumours.

Primary brain cancer can form in many of the different types of cells that make up the brain. The most common form of primary brain cancer is called glioblastoma, a type of glioma (tumour which form in the glial cells, cells that support the brain structure).

Secondary brain cancer is when cancer cells from another part of the body have spread to the brain (also called metastatic cancer). This is still considered a cancer of the original site. For example, bowel cancer that has spread to the brain is still referred to as bowel cancer or metastatic bowel cancer.

Secondary brain cancer is much more common than primary brain cancer.

Who can be affected by brain cancer?

Brain cancer can occur at any age and is one of the few cancers to also occur in children.

Risk factors

The causes of most brain tumours are unknown. A small proportion of brain tumours may be linked to hereditary factors. The most well-known environmental risk factor for brain cancer is exposure to radiation.

Other potential risk factors include exposure to certain chemicals, such as vinyl chloride, pesticides, rubber or petroleum products, however these are still being studied and there is currently not enough evidence at this time to confirm them as risk factors for brain cancer.

Signs and symptoms

These are dependent on which part of the brain is affected but may include any of:

  • Difficulty walking / weakness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea (feeling sick) / vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Blurry sight or loss of vision
  • Hallucinations
  • Changes in personality, memory, speech
  • Drowsiness

If you have developed one or more of the above symptoms it does not mean you have brain cancer, however you should visit your doctor to have your symptoms checked out.


There are several tests that can be done to confirm if you have brain cancer.

After talking to you about your history, your doctor will conduct a neurological examination (checking your reflexes and sensory responses).

The most common test after that is a radiology scan, either a CT or MRI, which will show images of the brain.

To confirm the diagnosis sometimes a brain biopsy is needed or an examination of the cerebrospinal fluid (fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord). Occasionally a non-cancerous condition can mimic a cancer and these tests may needed to help tell them apart.

The type of brain tumour may be confirmed by examination of the tissue biopsy by a pathologist.


If you are found to have brain cancer you will be referred to a specialist. A team of health professionals will look after your care.

Treatment varies depending on the type of cancer, location in the brain, and size of the tumour.

Treatment usually includes surgery to remove the tumour. For some people this may not be an option due to the risk of damage to the brain. Other standard treatments include radiotherapy (radiation to destroy cancer cells) and chemotherapy (medicine to destroy cancer cells).

Less common treatments sometimes used to treat brain cancer include immunotherapy (a treatment that helps your own immune system fight the cancer) and hyperthermia (heat treatments).

Helpful websites

Cancer Society, Brain Tumours

Brain Tumour Support NZ

Cleveland Clinic Brain Cancer & Brain Tumor: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments