Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Brain tumours

13-minute read

Key facts

  • A brain tumour is a lump of abnormal cells growing in your brain.
  • Brain tumours can cause a range of symptoms, such as headaches, seizures, vomiting and changes to your senses or behaviour
  • A brain tumour can usually be diagnosed by an MRI or CT scan of your brain.
  • It’s not known what causes brain tumours, but they may be linked to genetic factors, or exposure to very high doses of radiation to the head.
  • Treatment may include surgery, radiation or medicines aiming to either remove the tumour completely, slow its growth or relieve symptoms.

What is a brain tumour?

A brain tumour is a lump of abnormal cells growing in your brain. Your brain controls all the parts of your body and its functions and produces your thoughts. Depending on where it is, a tumour in your brain can affect these functions.

Tumours can be benign or malignant.

A benign tumour grows slowly and stays in one place. It is unlikely to spread to another part of your brain or the rest of your body.

Benign tumours are not cancerous. However, a benign brain tumour may still cause damage just by being there and pressing on your brain or nearby structures. This can be life-threatening and may need urgent treatment.

A malignant tumour is cancerous. It can spread to other areas of your brain or your spinal cord. It can also be called brain cancer.

Types of brain tumours

Brain tumours can either categorised as ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’.

  • A primary brain tumour is a tumour that has started in the brain.
  • A secondary brain tumour is a cancer from elsewhere in the body that has spread (metastasised) to the brain.

There are many types of brain tumours. Together with tumours of the spinal cord, they are collectively called central nervous system (CNS) tumours.

Primary brain tumours

Brain tumours are usually named according to the type of cell they started in. Some common types of primary brain tumours include:

  • gliomas (including astrocytomas and glioblastomas) — which start in glial cells, a type of cell found in all different parts of the brain. This is the most common type of brain tumour.
  • meningiomas — which start in the meninges (membranes around the brain and spinal cord)
  • medulloblastomas — which start in the cerebellum at the lower back of the head

Secondary brain tumours

If cancer cells from a primary tumour spread to another part of the body, they are called secondary tumours (metastases).

Most types of cancer can spread to the brain, forming secondary brain cancers. The types of cancer that most commonly spread to the brain include melanoma, bowel, breast, kidney and lung cancers.

What are the symptoms of a brain tumour?

Brain tumours have a range of symptoms that vary depending on where the tumour is, what type it is and how its size.

Slow growing brain tumours may not have any symptoms to start with.

Symptoms may include:

  • headaches — these are often the first symptom of a brain tumour
  • seizures
  • problems with balance and coordination
  • weakness on one side or part of the body
  • nausea and vomiting
  • confusion, drowsiness and fatigue
  • dizziness or loss of consciousness

You might also experience changes to:

  • your vision, hearing or speech
  • your sense of smell or taste
  • your personality and how you behave (e.g. irritability or moodiness)
  • how you think
  • hormone levels
  • your memory

Read more about brain tumours, including symptoms, in the Cancer Council’s guide 'Understanding brain tumours'.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Brain tumour symptoms in children

If your child is having a seizure, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Brain tumours in children may cause symptoms including:

  • headaches that don’t go away
  • recurrent vomiting
  • behavioural changes
  • abnormal eye movements
  • balance and coordination problems
  • seizures

They may have blurred or double vision, or you may notice that your child holds their head in an abnormal position.

If you are worried that your child is not behaving normally, or has other symptoms that concern you, see your doctor straight away.

What causes brain tumours?

It’s not known what causes brain tumours.

Occasionally, people develop brain tumours because of genetic factors, or because they’ve been exposed to very high doses of radiation to the head.

There is no definite link between mobile phones and brain tumours. Researchers continue to investigate the potential causes of brain tumours, including whether certain genes are important risk factors. Read more about brain tumour research at Cure Brain Cancer Foundation.

How is a brain tumour diagnosed?

Many people with a brain tumour see their doctor because they don’t feel well or are worried about their symptoms. Your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and examine you. If they are concerned, they may refer you for an MRI or CT scan of your brain to look for a tumour.

Sometimes, a person might not have symptoms, but may be diagnosed with a brain tumour if they have a scan of their brain for another reason.

You may also have blood tests to check hormone levels and your overall health.

Further testing

If tests show you have a brain tumour, your doctor will refer you to a specialist. They may arrange for you to have further tests to find out more about your tumour.

These tests may include:

  • a PET scan — this checks your whole body to see whether the tumour has spread
  • a lumbar puncture (‘spinal tap’) — where a sample of fluid around your brain and spinal cord is collected and tested for cancer cells
  • a surgical biopsy— where a small piece of the tumour is removed while you are under anaesthetic, to be examined under a microscope

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Grading brain tumours

Brain tumours are usually given a grade from 1 to 4. This suggests how quickly the tumour may grow and what the best treatment may be.

  • Grade 1 tumours are benign and grow slowly.
  • Grade 2 tumours are benign and grow slowly, but they may come back after treatment or get worse.
  • Grade 3 and 4 tumours are malignant (cancerous), grow at a faster rate, can spread to other parts of brain and usually come back after treatment.

How are brain tumours treated?

If you are diagnosed with a brain tumour, your doctor will discuss your treatment options with you. Depending on the type of tumour you have, treatment might aim to remove the tumour completely, slow its growth or relieve symptoms by shrinking the tumour.

Suggestions for treatment will be based on:

  • your age, health and medical history
  • the type, location and size of the tumour
  • how fast the tumour is growing and how likely it is to spread or come back
  • your symptoms
  • how you may react to different therapies

You may be referred to specialists including:

The main treatments for brain tumours are:

In addition to standard treatments, doctors may suggest you consider taking part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are research studies conducted to test new treatments. Read more about clinical trials on the Cure Brain Cancer website.

Talk to your doctor about all options, their side effects and how to manage them.

For information about support options for you, your family and your carers, go to Cancer Council support information or call their helpline on 13 11 20.


Surgery for brain tumours aims to remove as much of the tumour as possible, ideally the entire tumour, while minimising damage to healthy parts of the brain.

Sometimes the tumour may not be able to be removed, or some of it may be left behind, because it’s too close to important areas of your brain that could be damaged by surgery.

Surgery may also be necessary to:

  • relieve pressure on your brain
  • reduce the size of the tumour so chemotherapy or radiotherapy will be more effective


Radiotherapy (radiation therapy) involves treatment with x-rays to destroy the brain cancer or slow its growth. Radiotherapy is often given after surgery. It is aimed carefully so that healthy brain tissue near the cancer is not damaged. Sometimes, radiotherapy is combined with chemotherapy.


Chemotherapy uses medicines to kill cancer cells, while causing as little damage as possible to healthy cells.

Chemotherapy medicines for brain cancer are usually either swallowed or given through a tube inserted into your vein. They travel through the bloodstream, killing cells that grow quickly, such as cancer cells.

Chemotherapy may be used to kill cells remaining after surgery, to slow your brain cancer’s growth, or to minimise your symptoms. It is often given following surgery and can be given in combination with radiotherapy.

Medicines to control symptoms

If you have headaches or seizures you may be given anticonvulsant (anti-seizure) medicine to manage them. Steroids are sometimes given to reduce inflammation around a brain tumour.

Palliative care

Palliative care is the name given to treatment that aims to manage your symptoms and make you as comfortable as possible, without necessarily trying to cure your cancer. Palliative care is often given when brain cancer has reached an advanced stage, but it can also be used during earlier stages of the illness.

Symptoms caused by treatment for brain tumours

Surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and other treatments can produce symptoms themselves, while they work to reduce the impact of the tumour.

For example, radiotherapy has side effects including nausea and headaches. Chemotherapy commonly causes side effects such as vomiting and fatigue. Talk to your treating team about how to manage these symptoms.

Resources and support

Being diagnosed with a brain tumour or brain cancer can be overwhelming.

Connecting with, or reading about, other people who are going through or who have gone through the same thing can be helpful, as can talking to a counsellor. Finding out more information about your condition or treatments may also help you to cope.

There are several Australian health organisations that support people with brain tumours or brain cancer. You can find out more on the websites below.

In addition, your doctor can refer you to a psychologist or counsellor.

The Cancer Council also provides a comprehensive guide for understanding brain tumours.

Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

Do you prefer to read in languages other than English?

The following offer services and information in languages other than English:

Looking for information for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people?

The Cancer Council has developed resources to get the information, support and care you need.

Visit Our Mob and Cancer to get information on diagnosis, treatment and support for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people affected by cancer.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2024

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Brain cancer

Brain cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the brain grow in an uncontrolled way. The brain is part of the body’s central nervous system.

Read more on Cancer Australia website

Brain tumours and brain cancer - Synapse

Brain tumours can affect brain function in a number of ways and to varying degrees, depending on where they grow and how severe they are.

Read more on Synapse - Australia's Brain Injury Organisation website

Brain cancer | NT.GOV.AU

Early detection, symptoms and treatment for brain tumours.

Read more on NT Health website

Brain Tumour / Cancer - Brain Foundation

Description There are numerous types of brain tumours and they all behave differently and so require different combinations of treatment

Read more on Brain Foundation website

Brain Cancer Treatment - Targeting Cancer

Learn more about brain cancer, the symptoms, different treatments available, including radiation therapy, and the side effects of these treatments.

Read more on Radiation Oncology Targeting Cancer website

Brain cancer | Causes, Symptoms & Treatments | Cancer Council

What is brain cancer? Find out about the symptoms, causes, treatment options and more. Get the facts from Cancer Council here

Read more on Cancer Council Australia website

Brain tumours - gliomas - Better Health Channel

Gliomas are brain tumours associated with the three types of glial cell in the brain.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Give grief time | Grief and loss | ReachOut Australia

Matt talks about his journey back from grief after losing a close friend to brain cancer.

Read more on website

Brain Tumours Types & Symptoms - Cancer Council Victoria

Understand more about brain tumours including the different types, how common it is, risk factors & symptoms.

Read more on Cancer Council Victoria website

Meningioma - Targeting Cancer

A Meningioma is a common type of brain tumour arising from the tissue lining the brain and spinal cord (meninges). Learn about symptoms and treatments.

Read more on Radiation Oncology Targeting Cancer website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.