What Is a Brain Tumor?

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A brain tumor is a mass of malignant (cancerous) or noncancerous, but abnormal cells that ​grow in the brain. They can originate in the brain itself or be the result of cancer that has spread from another part of the body. Those that are cancerous tend to grow rapidly, while those that are not, grow slowly.

Many people can be cured of brain tumors, but sometimes they can cause long-term neurological deficits and even death. Symptoms of a brain tumor include seizures, neurological deficits, and persistent headaches. It is not clear what causes them, but getting an early diagnosis is the best way to optimize your outcome. 

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, approximately 700,000 Americans are living with a brain tumor.

Brain Tumor Symptoms

Most symptoms of brain tumors are not unique to them and can occur for several other reasons, even something as simple as the flu or sleepiness. Regardless, it's important that you see your doctor if you experience them. You can use our Doctor Discussion Guide below to start that conversation.

Brain Tumor Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

The symptoms of a brain tumor are based on factors such as the size and location of the tumor. Brain tumors produce symptoms by invading and replacing healthy tissue, compressing structures adjacent to the tumor (such as the optic nerve), and increasing intracranial pressure.

Symptoms of a brain tumor include one or more of the following:

  • Seizures
  • Persistent headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Difficulty concentrating or problem-solving
  • Memory changes
  • Mood or personality changes
  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Impaired speech and language (dysarthria)
  • Vision problems
  • Loss of consciousness

If you or your child experience any symptoms that could be related to a brain tumor, seek prompt medical attention. Most of the symptoms of brain tumors can also be symptoms of other conditions that also require a medical evaluation and possibly medical or surgical treatment. 

brain tumor symptoms
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Tumors are caused by cells that do not function as they should and grow more rapidly or survive for longer than normal cells, often encroaching on those healthy cells. 

It is not known why brain tumors develop.

Some may be the result of genetic diseases such as neurofibromatosis or tuberous sclerosis, which are associated with an increased risk of brain tumors. 

Environmental exposures, such as radiation and toxins, may also increase the chances of developing a brain tumor.

While there is no strong evidence that mobile phone use is a risk factor for brain tumors, the possibility—which has been gaining more interest—has not been completely ruled out.

Most brain tumors are spontaneous and have no identifiable cause.

There are more than 150 types of brain tumors, which are divided into different categories.

Primary and Metastatic Brain Tumors

Brain cancer arises either from cells within the central nervous system (CNS) or from tumors elsewhere in the body that metastasizes (spread) to the central nervous system. 

The former applies to primary brain tumors. They can originate from a number of different cells in the brain, such as glial cells (glioma), astrocytes (astrocytoma), meninges (meningioma), or the pituitary gland (pituitary tumor).

Metastatic brain tumors originate from somewhere else in the body, such as the lungs breast, colon, kidneys, or immune cells, and then travel to the brain, causing damage. 

Benign and Malignant Brain Tumors

Tumors can grow rapidly or be slow-growing, depending on the type.

All metastatic brain tumors are malignant. Primary brain tumors can be benign or malignant.

Brain tumors can be caused by slowly enlarging growths that are not cancerous, and these are described as benign brain tumors.

Brain tumors that grow more rapidly develop from enlarging growths that may spread to other regions or may return even after surgical removal. These are described as malignant.


If you have any symptoms that could be caused by a brain tumor, you should see your doctor. After a physical examination, which includes neurological and eye examinations, you may need to have specialized diagnostic testing to formalize (or rule out) a brain tumor diagnosis. This may involve:

  • Imaging tests: If your initial symptoms are neurological symptoms, then you are likely to have an imaging test of the brain, such as a CT scan or an MRI. These can distinguish between a brain tumor, a stroke, multiple sclerosis, or an infection of the brain, all of which can cause similar symptoms. If a tumor is suspected, you will likely have IV (intravenous) contrast, which is fluid that can help outline tumors, if they are present. You may also have these tests to check for brain metastasis if you have cancer of another part of your body, regardless of your symptoms.
  • Biopsy: If your imaging test reveals a concerning mass, you will likely be referred for a biopsy, which is the surgical removal of tissue for examination under a microscope by a pathologist. A biopsy for a brain tumor is not a minor procedure and, if possible, your neurosurgeon may remove the whole tumor at the same time as the biopsy. The biopsy can identify the type of cell of origin, which determines which kind of brain tumor you have (for example, a meningioma, astrocytoma, or a breast cancer metastasis). This tells your doctors the prognosis and what treatment it is expected to respond to. A biopsy also determines whether the whole tumor was removed. 


The treatment options for a brain tumor include surgical removal of part or all of the whole tumor, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and symptomatic therapy. 

Generally, surgery is considered the treatment most likely to be curative for a brain tumor.

  • Surgery: If you have one lesion, your neurosurgeon will attempt to remove the whole tumor. If your tumor is in a particularly delicate area of the brain, if it is metastatic, or if you have many lesions, surgery may not be possible. However, even under these challenging circumstances, your medical team may attempt to remove as much of your tumor as possible, with radiation therapy and chemotherapy as an adjunct to your treatment.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy for a brain tumor is directed to the tumor itself, with as little radiation to the surrounding normal brain tissue as possible. If you have multiple lesions or brain metastasis, there is a strong chance that you will need radiation therapy. 
  • Chemotherapy: Powerful medications that destroy cancer cells are given for aggressive brain tumors and for brain metastasis. Depending on the type of brain tumor, various chemotherapeutic regimens are tailored for treatment. 
  • Symptomatic treatment: You might need anticonvulsants to control seizures, pain medications to reduce pain, or steroids to reduce the inflammatory swelling that can occur as a result of a brain tumor.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, you probably already realize that this is a life-changing situation.

Many people are cured of brain tumors and even those who are not completely cured with surgery usually experience some improvement.

However, the prognosis is variable, and, after a biopsy, your doctors will be able to give you an idea of what you should expect. 

As you are undergoing treatment, it is important that you take the time to rest and take care of yourself. Treatment of a brain tumor can cause you to feel exhausted and often confused or not as sharp as usual. If your loved one is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, familiarize yourself with the side effects, and understand that the months of treatment may be challenging.

After recovery, most brain tumor survivors experience a gradual improvement, and if the tumor is completely resolved, are able to get back to enjoying life and taking part in challenges again.

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