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Brain Tumor—Adult

  • Michael Jubinville, MPH
Publication Type:


Brain Tumor and Brain Cancer—Adult


Brain tumors are abnormal growths in the brain.

There are two main types:

  • Primary—A tumor starts in the brain.
  • Secondary—Cancer spreads to the brain from another site in the body. These are called brain metastases. The most common come from lung cancer, breast cancer, and melanoma.
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Cancer is when cells grow out of control. The cells form a clump of tissue called a growth or tumor. Cancer cells can invade nearby tissues. It can then spread to other parts of the body. It is not clear what causes this.

Risk Factors

A person is at higher risk of having a brain tumor if they:

  • Were exposed to radiation
  • Have problems with their immune system
  • Have people in their family with the same problems


Symptoms depend on the tumor's size and where it is. A growing tumor will often have swelling around it. This is called cerebral edema. The tumor or its cerebral edema may cause:

  • Problems due to more pressure in the brain
    • Headaches that can:
      • Get worse over weeks or months
      • Be worse in the morning or when a person has first woken up
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Double vision, or seeing two of something when there is only one
  • Drowsiness
  • Problems due to the part of the brain that has the tumor
    • Seizures
    • Weak arms or legs
    • Loss of feeling in arms or legs
    • Personality changes
    • Problems with:
      • Walking
      • Hearing
      • Vision
      • Speech
      • Memory


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. The answers and a physical exam may raise concern about a brain tumor. Other tests that may be done include:

  • Imaging tests such as:
  • Biopsy or craniotomy with resection—a sample of the tumor is taken and studied in a lab

There are many types of tumors. Results from tests of the tumor sample with help define the type of tumor. Knowing this helps doctors make a care plan and could help with outcomes. It can also show what problems or results to expect.


Care depends on the tumor type and where it is. Some methods may leave lasting problems.

Before starting care, a person may first be treated with:

  • Steroids to reduce swelling and fluid buildup
  • Antiseizure medicines


A person may need:

  • Craniotomy—some or all of the tumor is removed through a hole in the skull
  • Shunt—a long thin tube is placed in the brain to drain fluid to another part of the body

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses radiation to kill cancer cells. It may be used after surgery to kill remaining cancer cells.

  • External—Radiation is directed at the tumor from a source outside the body. Tumors that spread from another area of the body may be treated with whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT) or stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS).
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS)—Higher doses of radiation can be sent to specific areas of the brain often in a single dose. This is not used for all types of tumors.
  • Internal—Radioactive materials are placed in the body near the cancer cells. This is not often done for brain tumors.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It may given by mouth, shots, or IV. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body.

Rehabilitation Therapy

This may help a person get better faster. How long this therapy takes depends on the amount of damage the tumor has caused. Therapy may help with:

  • Walking, balance, and building strength
  • Daily skills such as dressing, eating, and using the toilet
  • Speaking or swallowing problems


There is no way to prevent most brain tumors since the cause is unknown for many.





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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.