What is a primary brain tumour?

A primary brain tumour is a tumour that starts in the brain.

The brain manages how we think, feel, learn and move. It also controls other important things in the body, such as breathing and heart rate. The brain is protected by the skull.

We have separate information about tumours that start somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain. These are called secondary brain tumours or brain metastases.

Brain tumours can also affect children. If you need information about brain tumours in children, you can contact the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group.

Types of brain tumour

There are many different types of brain tumour. They are often named after the cell they develop from or the part of the brain they start in. More than half of primary brain tumours are gliomas.

Booklets and resources

Grading of brain tumours

A brain tumours can be:

  • low-grade – not cancer, sometimes called a benign tumour
  • high-grade – cancer, also called a malignant tumour.

A low-grade brain tumour usually grows slowly and may not cause symptoms for a long time. A high-grade brain tumour grows faster than a low-grade tumour.

We have more information about how brain tumours are graded.

Symptoms of a brain tumour

A brain tumour can cause headaches but it is unusual for this to be the only symptom. Other common symptoms include feeling sick and seizures. Symptoms depend on where the tumour is in the brain and how slowly or quickly it grows. They may develop suddenly, or slowly over months or even years.

Other conditions may cause similar symptoms. But if you have any symptoms, it is important to get them checked by your GP.

We have more information about the signs and symptoms of brain tumours.

Causes of a brain tumour

Doctors do not usually know what causes a primary brain tumour. There are certain things that can increase the risk of developing a brain tumour. These are called risk factors.

Brain tumour diagnosis

Many people receive a brain tumour diagnosis when they go to hospital after having a seizure (fit) or other sudden symptoms. Other people go to see their GP about symptoms.

If your GP thinks you may have a brain tumour, they may arrange for you to have a brain scan. Or they may refer you directly to a doctor who specialises in brain disorders (neurologist) for a diagnosis. People with brain tumours are treated in specialist hospitals. You may have to travel further to your nearest one.

At the hospital you will usually have:

You may also have the following tests:

  • Brain CT scan

    A CT scan makes a three-dimensional (3D) picture of the brain. You may have an injection of a dye into a vein in your arm. This is called a contrast. It helps show certain areas of the brain more clearly.

  • Brain MRI scan

    An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses magnetism to make a detailed picture of the brain. It can also be used to check your spine. It takes about 30 to 60 minutes and does not use any radiation. Sometimes specialised types of MRI scan are used to look at blood vessels (MR angiography) or chemical activity (MR spectroscopy) in the brain.

  • PET scan

    You might have a PET scan which uses low-dose radiation to check the activity of cells in an area. Or you may have a similar scan called a SPECT scan that looks at the flow of blood in the brain. 

  • PET-CT scan

    A PET-CT scan combines a CT scan and PET scan.

  • Brain biopsy

    A biopsy is when a surgeon removes a small part of the tumour to find out the type and grade of the tumour. A biopsy is usually done at the same time as surgery to remove the tumour.

  • Lumbar puncture

    A lumbar puncture is when a doctor removes some cells from the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to check for tumour cells. Not everyone needs this test. Your doctor will explain if it is likely to be useful.

Further tests

Further tests you may have include:

  • Blood tests
    blood test cannot diagnose a brain tumour. But some types of tumour release certain hormones or chemicals into the blood. If the tumour is affecting your pituitary gland or pineal gland, you may have blood tests to check for this.
  • X-ray
    Some people may have a chest x-ray to check their lungs and their general health.

Brain tumours and biomarkers

Some types of brain tumour are tested for gene changes. This is called testing for biomarkers or testing for molecular markers.

Driving and brain tumours

Most people diagnosed with a brain tumour will not be allowed to drive for a time after their diagnosis. Your doctor, surgeon or specialist nurse will tell you if this applies to you.

Getting support

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

Treatment for a brain tumour

Treatments for a brain tumour include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. You may have a combination of treatments. Your treatment depends on:

  • the size and position of the tumour
  • the type and grade of the tumour
  • any biomarkers you have
  • the symptoms you have.

If you have a low-grade tumour that is not causing problems, your doctor may suggest delaying treatment until it is needed. This is called active monitoring.

If surgery is possible, the surgeon will remove as much of the tumour as they can. You may have more treatment after surgery.

When surgery is not possible, the main treatment is usually radiotherapy. This could be with or without chemotherapy. Some people may have chemotherapy alone as their main treatment.

Your doctors and nurses will also make sure your symptoms are managed during treatment and afterwards if needed.

We have more information about brain tumour treatments.

After brain tumour treatment

After your treatment has finished, you usually have regular check-ups and scans. This will depend on your situation and the type of tumour. Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about this and how often you need to go to the clinic.

Coping with changes

As you recover from treatment, you may have to adjust to some changes. These may be caused by the treatment you have had or the tumour itself. We have more information about coping with changes.

Help with your recovery

Your healthcare team includes professionals who can help you during and after your treatment. They may be involved in the early stages of your recovery or for a while after your treatment has finished.

We have more information about the professionals that may support you.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 October 2019
Next review: 01 October 2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

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