The basics

Brain tumours are classified as either benign or malignant. The benign ones tend to grow more slowly and are less likely to come back if they’ve been completely removed. The malignant ones tend to grow faster, sometimes spread and may come back after treatment. They’re both treated in similar ways – but the exact care you receive depends on what type of tumour you have, where it is in the brain and how big it is.

Warning signs

Common symptoms of a tumour in your brain include:

  • Sickness, drowsiness, fits and headaches that feel different to normal headaches
  • Problems with your vision, balance or coordination
  • Problems with your emotions, behaviour or memory
  • Problems with your growth and puberty, as the tumour can interfere with the levels of hormones in your body.

Common symptoms of a tumour in your spinal cord include:

  • Pain, weakness, numbness or strange sensations in your arms or legs
  • Problems going to the toilet
  • If you’re male, it might make it tricky to get an erection, too.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should always get them checked out – although they all have many causes other than cancer.

Getting diagnosed

If your doctor thinks you might have a brain or spinal tumour, you’ll have various tests to check your nervous system. This can include everything from answering simple questions to seeing whether you can feel pinpricks on your skin.

A range of hospital tests can also be used. MRI and CT scans are used to build up a 3D image of your brain or spinal cord. PET scans, SPECT scans, blood tests and x-rays are all used to find out more about tumours. And a biopsy can be used to take cells from a tumour so they can be inspected under a microscope for signs of cancer. You’ll be given an anaesthetic if you have a biopsy.

You can find out more about all of these techniques in our Getting diagnosed section.

How's it treated?

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the main treatments for brain tumours. Surgery can be used to remove all or part of a tumour – if it’s possible to do that without damaging your brain. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can be used to remove a tumour and surrounding cells if surgery isn’t an option, or to treat cancer cells left behind after surgery. Sometimes all three are used, together or separately.

Find out more about cancer treatments.