Brain Tumors

A brain tumor is the growth of abnormal cells in the brain. When most normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body doesn’t need them, and old or damaged cells don’t die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Brain tumors are classified as either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Brain tumors are also classified as either primary or metastatic. When a brain tumor originates in the brain it is referred to as a primary brain tumor. Metastatic brain tumors begin as cancer elsewhere in the body and then spread to the brain.

This learning module discusses primary brain tumors that originate in the brain.


The symptoms of a brain tumor depend on tumor size, type, and location. Symptoms may be caused when a tumor presses on a nerve or harms a part of the brain. Also, they may be caused when a tumor blocks the fluid that flows through and around the brain, or when the brain swells because of the buildup of fluid. These are the most common symptoms of brain tumors:

  • Problems with memory
  • Problems balancing or walking
  • Headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • Muscle jerking or twitching (seizures or convulsions)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in speech, vision, or hearing
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
  • Changes in mood, personality, or ability to concentrate

Most often, these symptoms are not due to a brain tumor. Another health problem could
cause them. If you have any of these symptoms, you should tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated.


If you have symptoms that suggest a brain tumor, your doctor will give you a physical exam and ask about your personal and family health history. You may have one or more of the following tests.

  • Neurologic Exam
  • MRI
  • CT Scan
  • Angiogram
  • Spinal Tap
  • Biopsy


People with brain tumors have several treatment options. The options are surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Many people get a combination of treatments.

The choice of treatment depends mainly on the following:

  • The type and grade of brain tumor
  • Its location in the brain
  • Its size
  • Your age and general health

Chemotherapy, the use of drugs to kill cancer cells, is sometimes used to treat brain tumors. The side effects of chemotherapy depend mainly on which drugs are given and how much. Common side effects include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, headache, fever and chills, and weakness.

Radiation therapy kills brain tumor cells with high-energy x-rays, gamma rays, or protons. Radiation therapy usually follows surgery. The radiation kills tumor cells that may remain in the area. Sometimes, people who can’t have surgery have radiation therapy instead.

Surgery is the usual first treatment for most brain tumors. However, sometimes surgery isn’t possible. If the tumor is in the brain stem or certain other areas, the surgeon may not be able to remove the tumor without harming normal brain tissue. People who can’t have surgery usually receive radiation therapy or other treatment.

Tumor location, size and type are considered when deciding the type of surgery to perform. Surgery to remove a lesion in the brain is called a Craniotomy. This is “open” brain surgery requiring removal of part of the skull bone to access the brain tissues. Minimally invasive brain surgery may also be an option depending on your particular circumstances.

You and your health care team can work together to develop a treatment plan that meets your medical and personal needs.