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Brain cancer

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What is brain cancer?

Brain cancers include primary brain tumours, which start in the brain and almost never spread to other parts of the body, and secondary tumours (or metastases), which are caused by cancers that began in another part of the body.

There are more than 40 major types of brain tumours, which are grouped into two main types:

  • benign - slow-growing and unlikely to spread. Common types are meningiomas, neuromas, pituitary tumours and craniopharyngiomas.
  • malignant - cancerous and able to spread into other parts of the brain or spinal cord. Common types include astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, glioblastomas and mixed gliomas.

In 2015, 1787 brain cancers were diagnosed in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed with a brain cancer by age 85 is 1 in 103 for men and 1 in 161 for women.

In 2016, there were 1439 deaths in Australia caused by brain cancer. 

The five year survival rate for brain cancer is 22%.

Brain cancer symptoms

Headaches are often the first symptom of a brain tumour. The headaches can be mild, severe, persistent, or come and go. A headache isn't always a brain tumour but if you're worried, be sure to see your GP.

Other symptoms include:

  • difficulty speaking or remembering words
  • disturbed vision, hearing, smell or taste
  • seizures: severe (e.g. a convulsion) or mild (a fleeting disturbance of awareness, sensation or jerking muscles)
  • weakness or paralysis in part of the body
  • loss of balance
  • general irritability, drowsiness or a change in personality
  • nausea and vomiting. 

Causes of brain cancer

Some factors that can increase your risk of brain cancer include:

  • some brain and spinal cord tumours are more common in people with certain inherited or genetic conditions
  • people exposed to very high doses of radiation to the head.

Diagnosis for brain cancer

If a brain tumour is suspected, the doctor may check how different parts of the brain are functioning by checking your reflexes, muscle strength, ability to feel pin-pricks and to distinguish between hot and cold. An opthalmoscope is used to view the optic nerve, which may bulge if the pressure in the skull is raised, for example by a tumour.

Brain tumour diagnosis is usually by MRI and CT scans.

Other tests that are sometimes used are:

  • magnetic resonance spectroscopy
  • PET scan
  • single photon emission CT scan
  • lumbar puncture (also known as spinal tap).

Treatment for brain cancer


Based on the results of MRI, CT scans and other tests, your doctor will tell you the stage of the cancer. Staging describes the size of the cancer and if and how far it has spread beyond the brain.

Brain tumours are usually graded on a scale of 1 to 4, based on how quickly they are growing and their ability to invade nearby tissue: grades 1 and 2 are the slowest growing and are called low-grade tumours; grade 4 is the fastest growing.

Types of treatment

Brain tumours may be treated with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or steroid therapy, or a combination of these treatments.

Some tumours can be removed completely by surgery (craniotomy). Post-operative radiotherapy improves local control and survival. For glioblastomas, temozolomide may be added during or after radiotherapy to further improve outcomes.

If a tumour cannot be removed, the aim of treatment is to slow growth and relieve symptoms by shrinking the tumour and any swelling around it. Treatment options include radiotherapy with or without temozolomide.

Treatment team

Your treatment may consist of a number of health professionals depending on the type of treatment you have. These may include:

  • GP
  • neurologist - diagnoses and treats diseases of the brain and nervous system
  • neurosurgeon - uses surgery to treat brain diseases and injuries
  • cancer nurses
  • medical oncologist - diagnoses and treats cancer using chemotherapy
  • radiation oncologist - diagnoses and treats cancer with radiotherapy
  • other health professionals such as dietician, social worker, speech and occupational therapists. 

Palliative care

In some cases of brain cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer.

As well as slowing the spread of brain cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Screening for brain cancer

There is currently no screening for brain cancer available in Australia.

Prognosis for brain cancer

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. An individual's prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis.

For benign tumours that can be completely removed, cure is likely. For malignant tumours, outcomes depend on how slowly or quickly the tumour develops and response to treatment.

Preventing brain cancer  

There are no proven measures to prevent brain cancer.


Understanding Brain Tumours, Cancer Council Australia  ©2018. Last medical review of this booklet: April 2018.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.






For more information


  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012. Cancer survival and prevalence in Australia: period estimates from 1982 to 2010. Cancer Series no. 69. Cat. no. CAN 65. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australasian Association of Cancer Registries 2012. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2012. Cancer series no. 74. Cat. no. CAN 70. Canberra: AIHW.

This page was last updated on: Tuesday, February 25, 2014

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