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Brain Cancer Symptoms and Treatment

Updated on November 29, 2009

Cancer of the brain is rare, and most physicians would see a case only once every three or four years. There are many different types of cell in the brain, including nerve cells, membrane cells, glandular cells, and cells that secrete the fluid that surrounds the brain. Each of these different types of cells can develop one or more different cancers. Cancers can also form in the brain after migrating through the blood stream from other parts of the body including the lung, kidney and breast.

More than half of all brain cancers are gliomas. These develop from the support cells that surround and separate the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

The symptoms of brain cancers and tumors (abnormal growths that are not necessarily cancer) are very varied, depending on the type, size, and position in the brain. Symptoms that may occur by themselves or in combinations include convulsions, twitching, personality changes, nausea and vomiting, intellectual decline, strange sensations, loss of speech or sight, confusion and headaches. Contrary to popular belief, in only 20% of all cases is headache the first symptom noted by patients. Later in the development of the condition, the patient may become paralyzed, unconscious and have difficulty in breathing.

When a brain tumor is suspected, investigation will include blood tests, X-rays (sometimes involving the injection of dye into the arteries supplying the brain), measuring the brain waves electrically (electroencephalogram), CT scans, taking samples of the fluid around the brain (spinal tap), injecting safe radioactive material into the blood stream and using scanners to see how it is concentrated in the brain, and magnetic resonance imaging. A biopsy is often necessary to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment also varies depending on the type and position of the cancer. Surgery to remove the cancer is obviously the prime choice, but sometimes it is not possible because of the position of the cancer or the part of the brain involved. Irradiation and cancer-killing drugs are often used alone or in combination with surgery. Steroids are often given to reduce the swelling of the brain that occurs around the tumor. The result of treatment varies dramatically between patients.


An astrocytoma arises in the connective cells of the brain and is the most common type of glioma (cancer of connective cells). Its symptoms are often very mild and confusing in the early stages, and as a result it may be quite large before it is detected. Because of its size when diagnosed, it often cannot be totally removed surgically. The outcome is often better in children. Irradiation does not help in most cases, and the parts that cannot be removed are treated by drugs.


A medulloblastoma starts in brain nerve cells, and is more common in children. It increases the pressure in the brain to cause nausea and headaches. It is treated with a combination of surgery, irradiation and drugs. They are very sensitive to irradiation, but because they spread rapidly through the brain, only 30% can be cured.


The meninges are the thin membranes that surround the brain, and meningiomas develop from these. They are more common in older people, and the tumor compresses the brain, causing symptoms that relate to the part of the brain compressed. For example, if the area of the brain controlling the arm is compressed, the arm may become weak or paralysed. These are not very malignant tumors, and can be easily seen on a CT scan, and sometimes on a normal X-ray. They are treated by surgical removal, which is usually curative.

Please Note:

  • The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a registered physician or other healthcare professional.

  • The content of this page is intended only to provide a summary and general overview. Do not use this information to disregard medical advice, nor to delay seeking medical advice.

  • Be sure to consult with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.


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