Brain Cancer

What is Brain Cancer?

Brain cancer is where a collection of cells grow abnormally, resulting in a tumour.1 There are over 40 different brain tumours which can be divided into two groups; cancerous and non-cancerous (benign).2

Cancerous tumours – tend to be fast growing and can be either primary (originate within the brain) or secondary (having spread to the brain).1

Non-cancerous tumours – tend to be slower growing and don’t tend to spread to other areas of the body. Some tumours which begin as non-cancerous growths can become cancerous.1

Signs and symptoms of brain cancer

The signs and symptoms of brain cancer can depend where in the brain the tumour is located. However, some common symptoms of brain cancer include; 2

  • Changes in your senses (ie 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 brain cancer

Tumours of the brain and spinal cord are usually given a grading number between 1 and 4 (I-IV) which determines its’ characteristics.5 Because brain and spinal cord cancers typically don’t spread to other areas of the body, a grading system, instead of the more common cancer staging system is used.5

  • Grades 1 and 2 – tend to be slow growing tumours and are often benign (non-cancerous).
  • Grades 3 and 4 – are faster growing tumours and tend to be cancerous.

Treatment for brain cancer

Treatment for brain and spinal cord cancers depend on a number of factors including, the grade, type, location and size of the cancer as well your individual medical history, symptoms and personal preferences for treatment. 6

The main treatment options for brain cancer include;

  • Surgery – is some cases surgery can remove all (total resection) or some (partial resection or biopsy) of the tumour to help either manage symptoms or remove the cancer completely.7
  • Chemotherapy – are specific drugs that destroy cancer cells (although they can also destroy healthy cells which can lead to side-effects).8
    • Using chemotherapy drugs to treat brain cancer can be difficult due to the blood brain barrier, which is an ‘inbuilt’ protection system stopping harmful substances in the blood, from reaching the brain.8
  • Radiation therapy – uses targeted radiation to destroy cancer cells. It is often given once a day, every day for a set number of weeks.9
    • Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS) – is a specific type of targeted radiotherapy that can be used to treat small brain tumours and those tumours that can’t be treated with surgery or that have metastasised (tumours that have spread to the brain from other areas of the body).
      • It involves a special type of high-dose radiotherapy that target affected areas in the brain whilst avoiding healthy brain tissue.9
    • Stereotactic Radiation Therapy (SRT) – can be used to treat both cancerous and benign tumours. It involves a longer course of highly targeted radiotherapy treatment.9

Medications including steroids and anti-seizure drugs may also be given along with the above treatments to help relieve symptoms.6


Brain research at Icon

Our research centre at Icon offers Australia the largest private clinical trials programme in cancer research, with over 35 clinical trials currently open for recruitment.  Clinical trials specific to brain cancer research can be found here.

Icon’s collaborative approach to clinical trial research not only enables continual advancement and breakthroughs in brain cancer research, but also enab the most up to date treatment options are available to all patients regardless of health insurance.

Frequently asked questions

How common is brain cancer?

The risk of developing brain cancer by the time you are 85 years old is 1 in every 108 for men and 1 in every 154 for women.2

What causes brain tumours?

It is not known what causes tumours in the brain or spinal cord, however there are some factors which are thought to increase the risk for development of brain tumours: 3

       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 is responsible for protecting the body from infection and disease.3

o   Impaired immune function can result from a virus, such as AIDs, or from organ transplants, however CNS Lymphoma is increasingly seen in people with healthy immune systems as well. 4

       Genetic predisposition – in some cases of brain and spinal cord cancers there is a family link, although it is rare.3

       Exposure to radiation – the development of brain tumours from radiation exposure is quite rare, and 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.3

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.10 Therefore it is 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.11

A medical fitness to drive is an assessment based on two medical standards across Australia and comprise; either a commercial vehicle standard or a private vehicle driver standard. 11  For more information on the medical fitness to drive process, as well as forms required for this please click here.


  1. Brain Tumours. (2017). HealthDirect. Australian Government Department of Health. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/brain-cancer
  2. Brain Cancer. (2018). Cancer Council. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/brain-cancer.html
  3. Risk factors for brain and spinal cord tumours. (2017). American Cancer Society. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/brain-spinal-cord-tumors-adults/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html
  4. Factsheet: Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma. (2012). Leukaemia Foundation. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.leukaemia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Factsheet-Lymphoma-Primary-CNS.pdf
  5. Grading and prognosis for brain cancer. (2018). Cancer Council.  Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/brain-cancer/diagnosis/staging-prognosis/
  6. Brain cancer treatment. (2018). Cancer Council. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/brain-cancer/treatment/
  7. Surgery for brain cancer (2018). Cancer Council. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/brain-cancer/treatment/surgery/
  8. Chemotherapy for brain cancer (2018). Cancer Council. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/brain-cancer/treatment/chemotherapy/
  1. Radiation therapy for brain cancer (2018). Cancer Council. Retrieved on 20th February 2019 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/brain-cancer/treatment/radiotherapy/
  2. Driving (2018). Cancer Council. Retrieved on 26th May 2019 from https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/brain-cancer/after-treatment/living-with-a-brain-tumour/driving/
  3. Medical fitness to drive. (2018). Queensland Government. Retrieved on 26th May 2019 from https://www.qld.gov.au/transport/licensing/update/medical/fitness


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