Brain tumours - what you need to know

Closeup of a CT scan with brain

A brain tumour is basically just a collection of cells which grows in an uncontrolled and abnormal manner – and can be either benign or malignant. More than 9,000 brain tumours are diagnosed in the UK each year – about half of those are benign.
Grades of tumour
Both types are likely to require treatment and tumours are classed in grades 1 to 4 according to how aggressive they are. Benign tumours are usually graded 1 or 2 – as they grow slowly and are far less likely to return following treatment. Malignant ones are graded 3 or 4 and can either start in the brain (primary) or spread there from other parts of the body (secondary).

Symptoms experienced will vary according to where the tumour is within the brain, but common ones include severe and persistent headaches, seizures and nausea, drowsiness or vomiting. Memory problems or personality changes can also be a sign of a tumour – as can weakness or paralysis on one side of the body.mVision and speech problems are experienced by some sufferers.,Even if you have some of the symptoms, it is unlikely to be a brain tumour – but do go to see your GP and get it checked out.

As with many cancers and tumours, the exact causes are not fully understood. People of all ages are affected by brain tumours, though they are more common among the older generations. They are associated with certain genetic conditions – such as neurofibromatosis type 1 and tuberous sclerosis.
Previous radiotherapy treatment on the head is also thought to be a risk factor.

Neurological examination is the first port of call for diagnosing suspected brain tumours – with patients being put through a variety of tests and examinations intended to identify the tell-tale signs.
If positive, this can be followed by X-rays, an MRI scan or an electroencephalogram (EEG) – which sees electrodes attached to the scalp to look for abnormal brain activity.

A biopsy may then be taken to determine the nature of the tumour. This will see a small hole drilled through the skull and a tiny piece of tumour removed with a needle. A short stay in hospital will be required.

The main treatment for most brain tumours is surgery, with the aim to remove as much of the tumorous material as possible. This is then followed up with chemotherapy or radiotherapy if it has not been possible to remove all the abnormal material. In some cases radiosurgery is utilised – with very powerful radiation beams being aimed at the tumorous material to kill it off. For benign tumours there is a good prognosis and many patients do not see the problem return.

For malignant tumours the outlook is not so hopeful, with the effectiveness of treatment depending on where the tumour is located and the patient's age and general health. If a tumour does return – or if you are suffering from secondary cancer in the brain - then a cure is not likely to be possible. However there are well-established palliative treatments which can prolong life and provide more comfort for patients. Medication is also often provided for the effects of brain tumours – such as seizures, brain swelling, pain and vomiting.

Further information is available on the NHS Choices website and from Macmillan Cancer Support.

UK's First Brain Tumour Tissue Bank