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Brain cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on July 20, 2022.

Primary brain tumors originate in the brain and occur as the result of abnormal changes to brain cells, known as mutations. These tumors may be malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous). However, even benign tumors can damage normal brain tissue and cause serious problems.

Benign tumors grow slowly and tend to respond more to surgical or other treatments. Malignant brain tumors are aggressive and grow faster.

When cancer develops elsewhere in the body and spreads to the brain, it’s called a secondary brain tumor, or brain metastasis. Lung cancer, colon cancer, kidney cancer and breast cancer can all metastasize to the brain. These tumors are more common than primary brain tumors.

Brain cancer cells may travel short distances within the brain, but they generally do not spread beyond the brain. The chance of developing a malignant brain or spinal cord tumor is less than 1 percent, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Men are at a slightly higher risk—about one in 140—while women have a one in 190 chance of getting this cancer type, although women are at a greater risk for certain types of brain tumors.

No brain cancer patient is the same. Get personalized treatment.

At City of Hope, we use a variety of diagnostic tools and tests to evaluate primary and metastatic brain tumors, including biopsy, angiography and nuclear medicine bone scan. Then we use that information to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that also includes supportive care options to help manage the side effects of the disease and its treatment. A multidisciplinary team of brain cancer experts recommends treatment options based on each patient’s individual diagnosis and goals.

This overview will cover the basic facts about brain cancer, including:

If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of brain cancer and want to schedule an appointment for diagnostic testing, or if you’re interested in a second opinion on your brain cancer diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

What causes brain cancer?

Who gets brain cancer?

The risk of developing brain cancer increases with age, with the majority of cases diagnosed in people ages 65 and older. This can vary depending on the cell type and tumor location.

Certain cancers, like meningiomas, are twice as likely to develop in women, while medulloblastomas—predominantly diagnosed in children—are more frequently found in men.

Although not conclusive, cancer research indicates that chemical exposure may lead to a higher incidence of some brain tumors in people who work in oil refining, rubber manufacturing and drug manufacturing.

Brain cancer and brain tumor types

There are more than 120 types of brain tumors, according to the National Brain Tumor Society. Some brain tumors, such as glioblastoma multiforme, are malignant and may be fast-growing. Other types of brain tumors, such as meningiomas and schwannomas, may be slow-growing and benign.

The most common type of primary brain tumor is called a glioma, which originates in the glial (supportive) tissue. About one-third of all primary brain tumors and other nervous system tumors form from this type of cell.

The types of brain tumors include:

Learn more about brain cancer types

Brain cancer symptoms

Diagnosing brain cancer

Health care professionals use the following tools to diagnose brain cancer:

Learn more about diagnostic procedures for brain cancer

Brain cancer treatment options

Our approach to helping you maintain your quality of life

At City of Hope, we know that brain cancer may present unique challenges, including motor and speech impacts. That’s why our neurosurgeons often use nerve-monitoring technology during brain surgery to help ensure your motor function is not damaged during the procedure.

Your care team will also offer a variety of supportive care services to help address these issues throughout your care, so you’re better able to continue treatment without delay.

The pain management physician on your team, for example, may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medication for pain. They may also introduce implanted pain pumps and nerve-block therapies as options. The pain management team works with our rehabilitation services and other supportive care therapies, including speech and language pathologists, to coordinate treatment and therapy recommendations.

Because your care team works all under one roof, they coordinated daily and can tweak treatment plans as needed in real time.