Brain tumours

A brain tumour is a mass of abnormal cells that are growing too rapidly and in an uncontrolled manner within the skull. These tumours most commonly grow within the substance of the brain itself, but may also grow from tissues outside the brain and indent the brain (such as meningioma).

Tumours growing within the brain may be primary tumours, having arisen from any cell type present within a normal brain, or they may be secondary tumours, having arisen from the spread of a malignant tumour (cancer) elsewhere in the body. Primary tumours most often arise from the supporting cells of the brain (glia) and are, therefore, termed gliomas. Secondary tumours may spread from any other cancer in the body but most often from lung, breast, abdominal and skin cancers. A secondary tumour is also called a metastasis.

You can find more information about brain tumours, including symptoms and when you should see your GP, on the NHS website.


If your doctor suspects you may have a brain tumour, they will send you for a scan of your brain. This might be a CT scan or an MRI. If there is any possibility of a secondary tumour (metastasis) your doctor might arrange other investigations including a chest x-ray, blood tests, and sometimes CT scans of your chest, abdomen and pelvis. The brain scan will show if there is any mass in the brain and will give a good idea of the type of lesion.

If your scan has shown a mass in your brain, we will usually need to confirm your diagnosis by doing a biopsy. Your neurosurgeon may advise an open operation to remove the tumour if this can be done safely, or otherwise he may advise a biopsy of the lesion. The biopsy results will tell us the type of tumour (cell of origin) and the grade of the tumour (how fast it is growing) - we need to know this as different tumours require different types of treatment, and carry different prognoses (likely outcomes). Sometimes a biopsy will show that you have a different condition rather than a tumour (such as an abscess), which need different treatment.


There are lots of different treatments for brain tumours, depending on your exact diagnosis. These include steroids, surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and radiosurgery.

You can read our patient information leaflets on steroid therapy for brain tumours and radiotherapy to the brain.

Read more about treatment for brain tumours on the Cancer Research UK website.