Everything You Need to Know About Brain Cancer

By The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center


Understanding the basics of brain cancer is important in order to better comprehend the situation you or a loved one may be facing. Duke’s is a brain tumor treatment and research center dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by brain cancer. 

We’ve provided you with a comprehensive guide on brain cancer, including its types, symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment options, to help you better understand this diagnosis. Being committed to providing cutting-edge treatments and conducting groundbreaking research to improve the outcomes of brain cancer patients, we hope this guide helps provide clarity on brain cancer and tumors. 

What is a Brain Tumor? 

A brain tumor is the growth of abnormal cells that multiply uncontrollably in the brain or near the brain to form a mass. This mass can cause added pressure inside the skull as well as multiple other symptoms depending on the location of the tumor. There are over 120 documented types of tumors that can form in any part of the brain or skull and vary greatly in size. 

What is Brain Cancer? 

Brain cancer, otherwise known as primary brain cancer, is an overgrowth of cells in your brain that form a mass known as a brain tumor. When cancer starts in a different part of the body and spreads to the brain, it’s called metastasized or secondary brain cancer. Cancers that are commonly known to spread to the brain are breast cancer, colon cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, and skin cancer. 

Types of Brain Tumors & Locations

Brain tumors get their name based on their location or the types of cells that make up the tumor. They are also given a grade from 1- 4 to represent how fast the tumor is expected to grow. A score of one means it has the slowest growth, while a score of four means it's growing the fastest. 

Types of Brain Tumors 

These are the most common types of brain tumors that are categorized by the types of cells they are made up of: 

  • Glioma: A tumor that originates from glial cells 
  • Astrocytoma: A type of glioma that includes glioblastomas, the fastest-growing type of tumor in the brain 
  • Meningioma: A tumor that grows in the tissue surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is the most common type of brain tumor in adults and are typically benign and slow-growing
  • Ganglioglioma: A slow-growing tumor that is found in glial cells and neurons
  • Craniopharyngiomas: A slow-growing tumor that forms between the pituitary gland and the brain. It often presses on optic nerves, resulting in vision difficulties
  • Medulloblastoma:  A fast-growing tumor that forms on the brain’s nerve cells and is more commonly found in children 

Brain Tumor Locations

These are the most common types of tumors that only form in certain areas of the brain: 

  • Meningiomas: Forms in the protective lining of the brain (meninges) 
  • Pituitary tumors: Forms in the pituitary gland
  • Medulloblastoma tumors: Forms in the cerebellum or brainstem
  • Skull base tumors: Forms on the base of the skull, underside of the brain 

What Causes Brain Cancer?

Brain cancer happens when cells change their DNA, this change instructs the cells to grow quickly and continue living instead of following their natural life cycle and dying off. This leads to a mass of excess accumulated cells, which is called a tumor. Doctors still do not know what causes primary cancer, and for most patients, the exact cause of the brain tumor is never known. 

Brain Tumor Causes and Risk Factors 

While there is still much to be learned about brain cancer, here is a list of potential brain tumor causes and risk factors: 

  • Cancer that spreads from another part of the body ( secondary brain cancer) 
  • Exposure to radiation ( CT scans, X-rays, radiation therapy, etc) 
  • Inherited syndromes or genetic conditions that predispose your body to the overproduction of certain cells 

Brain Tumors in Children 

Brain cancer is the second most common form of cancer in children after Leukemia, affecting around 5,000 children in the United States every year. Children can develop different types of brain tumors, a few of the most common forms being astrocytomas, gliomas, ependymomas, and medulloblastomas.

Brain Cancer Symptoms 

The size of a tumor and its speed of growth impact the types of symptoms patients will experience. Depending on the location of the tumor, specific symptoms are more likely to occur since different parts of the brain control different functions in our bodies. Here is a list of the most common symptoms of brain cancer:  

  • Headaches or uncomfortable pressure in the head 
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Seizures 
  • Difficulty thinking or speaking 
  • Vision changes or problems 
  • Dizziness or loss of balance 
  • Hearing problems 
  • Personality and behavior changes 
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion 
  • Lack of coordination 

Parts of The Brain & What Symptoms They Control 

  • Front Lobe: Personality, movement, and sense of smell
  • Parietal Lobe: Identification of objects, sense of pain and touch, body navigation, and ​​spatial position
  • Occipital Lobe: Vision 
  • Temporal Lobe: Memory, speech, musical rhythm 
  • Pons: Control of movement in the eyes and face 
  • Medulla: Control of heart and lung 

Can You Have a Brain Tumor Without Symptoms? 

Yes, you can have a brain tumor with no symptoms. Slower-growing tumors such as meningioma often do not produce any symptoms until the tumor is large enough to begin causing life-threatening problems. 

Brain Cancer Diagnosis 

A number of tests can be done in order to provide a diagnosis, here are a few of the most commonly performed examinations: 

  • Neurological Exam: A series of exams to evaluate the patient’s hearing, balance, vision, and reflexes. 
  • Brain Scans: This can be anything from CT scans, MRI, X-rays, or PET scans to identify the location of the tumor 
  • Biopsy: A surgical procedure where the surgeon removes a small part of the tumor tissue for testing. This can help them determine how aggressive the tumor is and whether or not it is cancerous. If surgery can not be performed, a procedure called stereotactic needle biopsy can be considered. This is when a small hole is drilled into the skull and a thin needle is used to remove tissue from the tumor for testing. 
  • Lumbar Puncture: Collecting a sample of cerebrospinal fluid to see if it contains traces of tumor cells. 
  • Neurocognitive Assessment: Tests used to spot changes in cognition and general well-being. It helps map your brain function level compared to others your age. 

Brain Cancer Treatments 

There are various treatment options for tumors, and the right treatment depends on whether or not the tumor is cancerous, the type of tumor, its size, grade, and location in the brain. 

The most common type of treatment is brain surgery, and for some cases, after the tumor is surgically removed, it is the only treatment needed along with continuous monitoring. Here is a list of treatment options for brain tumors: 

  • Brain surgery 
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Clinical trials 
  • External beam radiation therapy
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery 
  • Proton therapy 
  • Targeted drug therapy 
  • Clinical trials 


A prognosis is a likelihood of whether or not a brain tumor can be cured. Being diagnosed with a brain tumor can leave you feeling scared and uncertain about what's next, which is why it’s important to find a medical clinic, doctor, and medical team you trust and feel comfortable with. 

Your team of medical experts will then decide what course of action should be taken. There are a few factors that can influence the prognosis for brain tumors: 

  • Type of brain tumor (size, location, and grade) 
  • How fast it is growing and whether it has spread 
  • Overall health and well-being 
  • Patient’s treatment preferences
  • How present symptoms are and how long you’ve had symptoms
  • Whether the brain tumor can be fully removed with surgery or not 

Duke’s Brain Cancer Center

If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with brain cancer, Duke’s leading physicians and Neuro-Oncology doctors can help. Our specialists work together to develop personalized treatment plans for each patient. Visit our website to request an appointment with one of our world-leading doctors today. 

Duke’s is committed to providing exceptional patient care at our brain cancer center located in Durham, North Carolina, and always strives to provide hope for anyone facing a brain tumor diagnosis. We encourage you to explore our website and reach out to us with any questions, and we hope this guide will serve as a resource for those who are interested in learning more about brain cancer.