Brain Cancer

Brain cancer develops from a collection of cells in the brain which grow abnormally, resulting in a tumour.

Last modified: November 30, 2021

Quick facts about brain cancerQuick facts

  • The chance of surviving brain cancer for at least five years is 22%
  • Cancerous brain tumours represent 1.5% of cancer diagnoses in Australia

Types of brain cancerTypes of brain cancer

There are over 40 different brain tumours which can be divided into two groups: cancerous (malignant) and non-cancerous (benign).

  • Cancerous (malignant) tumours – These tend to be fast growing and can be either primary (originate within the brain) or secondary (having spread to the brain). While cancerous tumours are not commonly diagnosed in Australia (1.5%), they are the sixth highest cause of cancer burden
  • Non-cancerous (benign) tumours – These tend to be slower growing and don’t spread to other areas of the body. Some tumours which begin as non-cancerous growths can become cancerous, although this is rare. Non-cancerous tumours are the most frequent type of brain tumours, with a five-year survival rate of 91%

Common types of primary brain cancers include glioma and non-glioma cancers:

Glioma cancers

These cancers begin in the gilial cells the cells that surround the nerve cells and are the most common type of brain cancer. They are named according to the type of glial cell they develop from and can include astrocytoma, ependymoma, glioblastoma, oligoastrocytoma and oligodendroglioma

Non-glioma cancers

These cancers begin in other parts of the brain including the cerebellum (medulloblastoma), the membranes (meningioma), the pituitary gland (pituitary cancer) and the Schwann cells that cover the nerves in the brain (schwannoma)

Signs and symptoms of brain cancerSigns and symptoms

As signs and symptoms for brain cancer can be similar to other common conditions, it’s important to see your GP or healthcare professional if you experience any of the symptoms below. Discussing anything concerning with your doctor as soon as possible can help give you peace of mind and offer the best chance of successful treatment if you receive a brain cancer diagnosis. 

The signs and symptoms of brain cancer you experience can depend on where in the brain the tumour is located.

However, some common symptoms of brain cancer include:

  • Changes in your senses (including sight, smell, hearing and taste)

  • Difficulty with balance

  • Loss of memory and difficulty with speech

  • Headache, nausea and vomiting

  • Changes in personality such as irritability, anxiety or depression

  • Mild or severe seizures

Grading primary brain cancer Grading

Tumours of the brain and spinal cord are usually given a grading number between 1 and 4 (I-IV) which describes its characteristics and how the cancer compares to normal cells. Because brain and spinal cord cancers typically don’t spread to other areas of the body, a grading system is used that is different to the staging systems used with more common cancers.

The grading system takes into account molecular features and involves checking the cells under a microscope (known as histology).

Grade I

These tumours are non-cancerous, grow slowly and don’t tend to spread.

Grade II

These tumours are non-cancerous and don’t tend to spread, however they are likely to return after treatment.

Grade III

These tumours can grow quickly and include cancerous cells, but no dead cells.

 Grade IV

These tumours grow quickly and have a mixture of cancerous cells and dead cells.

Treatment for brain cancer

There are many different types of treatment for brain cancer. Your treatment will depend on you and your cancer.

Frequently asked questions about brain cancerFAQs

Is brain cancer hereditary?

While there may be genetic changes linked to brain cancer that can be inherited, the majority of brain cancers are not known to be a result of inherited genes.

What causes brain cancer?

It is not known what causes primary tumours in the brain or spinal cord, however there are some factors which are thought to increase the risk of developing brain tumours:

  • Severely impaired immune function – Can result in an increased risk of primary CNS lymphoma (cancer of the lymphocytes of the spinal cord and brain). Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell which are responsible for protecting the body from infection and disease. Impaired immune function can result from a virus, such as AIDs, or from organ transplants, however CNS lymphoma is now increasingly seen in people with healthy immune systems
  • Genetic predisposition – In some cases of brain and spinal cord cancers there is a genetic link, although this is rare
  • Exposure to radiation – People who have been treated with radiation therapy for a previous cancer have a higher risk of developing brain cancer, although this is very rare. It is most often seen in people who have had radiation to their head to treat other types of cancers, such as in children who are treated for leukemia. This occurs years after treatment. We encourage you to speak with your doctor if you notice any changes to your cognitive function
How common is brain cancer?

The risk of developing brain cancer by the time you are 85 years old is one in every 130 for men and one in every 211 for women.

What can I do to decrease my risk of brain cancer?

While there are no proven measures to prevent brain cancer,  there are lifestyle-related factors you may like to consider to reduce your risk of developing cancer in general. These include:

  • Getting regular exercise – Cancer Australia recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day
  •  Reducing your alcohol intake – If you choose to drink, try to limit your alcohol intake to no more than two standard drinks a day
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet – Eat a fibre-rich diet from grain and legume sources, as well as enjoying a variety of fruit (two serves) and vegetables (five serves) per day, limiting your intake of salt and saturated fats, and avoiding all processed meat
Where can I find out more about brain cancer screening?

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

Does brain cancer and its’ treatment affect your ability to drive?

Brain cancer and its treatment can affect your sight, coordination, ability to think and carry-out critical functions needed for safe driving. This is why it’s important you discuss your cancer diagnosis and treatments with your specialist team, who will be able to assess and advise you on your medical fitness to drive.

A medical fitness to drive is an assessment based on two medical standards across Australia: a commercial vehicle standard or a private vehicle driver standard.

Learn more about the medical fitness to drive process, as well as forms required for this. 

Are there clinical trials available for brain cancer that I can participate in?

Icon delivers Australia’s largest private cancer clinical trials and research program participating in international and national trials across medical oncology, haematology and radiation oncology. If you would like more information on participating in a clinical trial, please speak with your doctor.

See current clinical trials delivered by Icon Cancer Centre.


For a full list of references, click here.
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  4. Australian Government: Cancer Australia (2021). Brain Cancer. Retrieved on 15 November 2021 from
  5. Cancer Council (2020). Understanding Brain Tumours. Retrieved on 30 November from
  6. Cancer Council (2018). Grading and prognosis for brain cancer. Retrieved on 20 February 2019 from
  7. American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) (2021). Brain Tumor: Grades and Prognostic Factors. Retrieved on 23 November 2011 from
  8. American Cancer Society (2017). Risk factors for brain and spinal cord tumours. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from
  9. Leukaemia Foundation (2012).Factsheet: Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from
  10. Cancer Council (2018). Driving. Retrieved on 26th May 2019 from
  11. Cancer Council NSW (2021). Radiation therapy for brain cancer. Retrieved 18 November 2011 from,symptoms%20such%20as%20poor%20memory%2C%20confusion%20and%20headaches.
  12. Queensland Government (2018). Medical fitness to drive. Retrieved on 26th May 2019 from
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