Brain tumours

PDF download is not available for Arabic and Urdu languages at this time. Please use the browser print function instead

Brain tumours can affect the brain and central nervous system. Learn about the signs and symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis for brain tumours in teenagers.

Key points

  • A brain tumour is a cancer that can affect the brain and central nervous system.
  • There are different types of brain tumours and they can happen in any part of the brain. Some types of brain tumours, such as astrocytomas and gliomas, are more common in teens.
  • Brain tumours get their names from the type of cell and the area of the brain where they develop.
  • Brain tumours rarely spread outside the central nervous system.
  • Treatment and prognosis will depend on the type of brain tumour you have.

Your brain

To understand brain tumours, it is important to first understand a bit about your brain.

Everything you do, think or feel is because of your brain. The brain is the control centre for your whole body. Your brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. A neuron’s job is to carry messages between parts of your brain or between your brain and other parts of your body. A group of neurons is called a nerve.

Nerves are like very tiny wires connecting your brain with your body. Nerves leave your brain and come together to form your spinal cord. The spinal cord runs down the length of your back within a space called the spinal canal and is protected by the bones of your spine. The nerves travel through your spinal cord to reach all the different parts of your body. Together, your brain and your spinal cord form your central nervous system. A special fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (say: suh-REE-bro-spy-nal), or CSF for short, circulates around your brain and spinal cord and acts like a cushion.

Your brain is a very delicate organ. It is protected by your skull.

Parts of the brain

There are three main parts of the brain.

  • The cerebrum (say: suh-REE-brum) is the largest part of your brain and has two halves called cerebral (say: suh-REE-brul) hemispheres. It does all the things you normally associate with a brain: moving your limbs, thinking, talking, feeling emotions, forming memories, and controlling your five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell).
  • The cerebellum (say: suh-ruh-BELL-um) is at the back of your brain and controls your balance and co-ordination.
  • The brainstem is where your brain connects to your spinal cord. It controls the things that you do not have to think about, such as your breathing, your heart beat and your body temperature.

To learn more about the different areas of the brain and what they do, click on the names of the different parts of the brain.

Symptoms of brain tumours

A tumour develops when a mutated cell divides out of control and forms a mass of cells.

Your brain is inside your skull, which is like a small box. As the tumour grows, it takes up space, but there is very little extra space inside your skull. Eventually, the brain tumour gets so big that the rest of the brain is squished inside the skull. This is when the brain tumour usually becomes noticeable because it starts to cause symptoms.

These symptoms are signals from the body that something is wrong. For a brain tumour, common symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • seizures
  • vomiting
  • feeling drowsy or sleepy
  • problems with seeing or talking

Other symptoms of a brain tumour depend on which part of the brain the tumour is in. Because your brain controls everything you do, think or feel, there are a wide variety of symptoms. For example, if the tumour is pressing on a part of your brain that controls your sense of smell, you might lose your ability to smell. If the tumour is in an area that controls your ability to walk, you might have difficulty walking. Some brain tumours can cause trouble speaking, thinking, remembering or concentrating. Brain tumours can also cause a change in your personality.

Benign and malignant brain tumours

Brain tumours can be either benign (not cancerous) or malignant (containing cancer cells). Here are some of the differences.

Benign tumoursMalignant tumours
Do not metastasize (spread) Can metastasize (spread) to other parts of the brain or spinal cord
Usually grow more slowlyUsually grow more quickly
Do not invade healthy areas of the brain nearbyInvade healthy areas of the brain nearby
Cells look similar to normal brain cellsCells look different from normal brain cells and are cancerous

Malignant tumours are more serious. However, benign brain tumours can still cause problems because they take up space and press on different parts of the brain.

Types of brain tumours

There are more than 100 types of brain tumours. Some that are more common in teens are astrocytomas and gliomas. Other types of brain tumours include:

  • medulloblastoma
  • ependymoma
  • germ cell tumour
  • craniopharyngioma
  • meningioma
  • choroid plexus tumour

Diagnosis of brain tumours

Doctors learn what type of brain tumour you have through a process called diagnosis. You will learn more about diagnosis in the section Diagnosing cancer.

Usually diagnosis of a brain tumour starts with a doctor or nurse taking your history and doing a physical exam. This means they ask you and usually your parent/caregiver about how you are feeling and why you have come to see the doctor. They then check different parts of your body to see how they are working.

They will also do a neurological (say: noo-ro-loh-jik-al) exam. This exam checks your nerves to see how well your brain and body are communicating with each other. Your doctor will probably send you for a CT scan or an MRI to get a picture of your brain. They may also do a biopsy to look at the cells in the tumour.

Treatment of brain tumours

Treatment for a brain tumour will depend on what type of tumour you have. Depending on where the tumour is located, you may need surgery. You may also have radiation or chemotherapy or take other medications to help with side effects. The goal of treatment is to remove or kill all of the cancer cells in your body. Treatment is explained more fully in the sections Cancer medications and Cancer treatments and support therapies.

Prognosis for brain tumours

Your doctor will probably tell you and your family the prognosis for your brain tumour. Prognosis means the likelihood or chance that treatment will work and that your cancer will go away and not come back. Each type of brain tumour has a different prognosis depending on:

  • the type of brain tumour – some types are easier to treat than others
  • the part of the brain where the tumour is located
  • how easily the tumour can be removed with surgery
  • how quickly the tumour is growing
  • whether the cancer is malignant or benign
  • whether the cancer has spread

Your best source of information about your brain tumour is your health-care team. If you have any questions or if there is anything you do not understand about your brain tumour, ask your doctors and nurses. If you are nervous about asking the doctors or nurses by yourself, talk to your parents. They may be able to answer your questions or can help you ask questions.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019