- Brain and spinal cord tumours
Brain and spinal cord tumours
A brain or spinal cord tumour occurs when abnormal cells grow and form a mass or a lump. The brain and spinal cord are made up of two main types of cells: neurons and glial cells. The tumour may be benign or malignant, but both types can be serious and may need urgent treatment.
Learn more about:
- What is a tumour?
- The brain and spinal cord
- Who gets brain or spinal cord tumours?
- Types of brain and spinal cord tumours
- What causes brain or spinal cord tumours?
- Video: What is brain cancer?
What is a tumour?
A tumour is an abnormal growth of cells. Cells are the body’s basic building blocks – they make up tissues and organs. The body constantly makes new cells to help us grow, replace worn-out tissue and heal injuries.
Normally, cells multiply and die in an orderly way, so that each new cell replaces one lost. Sometimes, however, cells become abnormal and keep growing. In solid cancers, such as a brain tumour, the abnormal cells form a mass or lump called a tumour.
Tumours in the brain are often classified as benign or malignant. These terms are also used for tumours in other parts of the body. But with brain tumours the difference is not as clear.
Benign brain tumours usually grow slowly and are unlikely to spread. They may also be called low-grade or non-malignant tumours. A benign tumour may grow and affect how the brain works. This can be life-threatening and may require urgent treatment. Sometimes a benign tumour can change over time and become high grade.
Malignant brain tumours can grow rapidly. They are considered life threatening because they may spread within the brain and spinal cord, or come back after treatment. A malignant brain tumour may be called brain cancer.
Unlike malignant tumours in other parts of the body, malignant brain tumours usually do not spread outside the brain and spinal cord.
Primary and secondary cancers
A brain tumour that first develops in the brain is called primary brain cancer. It may spread to other parts of the nervous system, but rarely spreads to other parts of the body.
Sometimes cancer starts in another part of the body and then travels through the bloodstream to the brain. This is known as a secondary cancer or metastasis. The cancers most likely to spread to the brain are melanoma, lung, breast, kidney and bowel.
A metastasis keeps the name of the original cancer. For example, bowel cancer that has spread to the brain is still called metastatic bowel cancer, even though the person may be having symptoms because cancer is in the brain.
The brain and spinal cord
The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). Together, the different parts of the CNS control the activities of the mind and body.
The brain – The brain receives and interprets information carried to it via nerves from the sensory organs that control taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. It also sends messages via nerves to the muscles and organs. The brain is responsible for memory, personality and behaviour. The main parts of the brain are the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brain stem.
Spinal cord – The spinal cord extends from the brain stem to the lower back. It is made up of nerve tissue that connects the brain to all parts of the body through a network of nerves called the peripheral nervous system. The spinal cord lies in the spinal canal, protected by a series of bony vertebrae called the spinal column.
Meninges – These are thin layers of protective tissue (membranes) that cover both the brain and spinal cord.
Cerebrospinal fluid – Also known as CSF, cerebrospinal fluid is found inside the skull and spinal column. It surrounds the brain and spinal cord and protects it from injury.
Pituitary gland – This is found at the base of the brain and is about the size of a pea. The pituitary gland releases chemical messengers (hormones) into the blood. These hormones control many body functions, including growth and development, and also tell other glands to start or stop releasing hormones.
The central nervous system
The parts of the brain
The largest part of the brain is the cerebrum, also known as the cerebral cortex. The cerebrum is divided into two halves called hemispheres. Each hemisphere is divided into four main areas. These are called the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes. Each lobe controls different functions.
Who gets brain or spinal cord tumours?
Every year an estimated 2000 malignant brain tumours are diagnosed in Australia, and can affect people of any age. About 100 children aged 0–14 are diagnosed each year.
Benign brain and spinal cord tumours are more common than malignant tumours. Data is not collected by every Australian state, but in 2015, there were more than 1000 benign brain and spinal cord tumours in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia combined.
Types of brain and spinal cord tumours
The brain is made up of different tissues and cells, which can develop into different types of tumours. There are more than 40 types of primary brain and spinal cord tumours (also called central nervous system or CNS tumours).
They can start in any part of the brain or spinal cord. Tumours are classified based on the type of cell they start in and how the cells are likely to behave (based on their genetic make-up).
Common types of primary brain tumours
This is the most common category of brain tumour. Gliomas are tumours that start in the glial (neuroglia) cells of the brain.
What causes brain or spinal cord tumours?
The causes of most brain and spinal cord tumours are unknown, but factors known to increase the risk include:
While it is rare for brain tumours to run in families, a fault in the genes, usually passed down from either the mother or father, can increase the risk of developing a brain tumour. For example, some people have a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis, which can lead to tumours of the brain and spinal cord. For more information about genetic testing, talk to your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
People who have had radiation therapy to the head, particularly to treat childhood leukaemia, may have slightly higher risk of developing a brain tumour.
Mobile phones and microwave ovensMany people are concerned that electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones or microwave ovens may cause a brain tumour.
Evidence to date does not show that using a mobile phone causes cancer. Studies are continuing to look at the potential long-term effects of mobile phone use. If you are concerned about potential harm from mobile phones, you could consider using a hands-free headset, limit the time you spend on your mobile phone or send a text rather than calling.
Microwave ovens have been in widespread use since the 1980s. There is no evidence that ovens in good condition release electromagnetic radiation at levels harmful to people.
Video: What Is Brain Cancer?
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
A/Prof Andrew Davidson, Neurosurgeon, Macquarie University Hospital, NSW; Dr Lucy Gately, Medical Oncologist, Oncology Clinics Victoria, and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, VIC; Melissa Harrison, Allied Health Manager and Senior Neurological Physiotherapist, Advance Rehab Centre, NSW; Scott Jones, Consumer; Anne King, Neurology Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Health Department, WA; Dr Toni Lindsay, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Allied Health Manager, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Elissa McVey, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Claire Phillips, Deputy Director, Radiation Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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