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Symptoms and Signs of Brain Cancer

Doctor's Notes on Brain Cancer

Brain cancer is cancer located inside the brain. It can arise from many different types of brain cells (primary brain cancer). Cancer in the brain is most common when cancers from other parts of the body spread or metastasize to the brain, but these are not considered to be true brain cancers. True brain cancers are those that arise in the brain itself. The cause of brain cancer is not well understood, but genetic and environmental factors are believed to play a role in its development.

Symptoms of brain cancer cam vary. Common symptoms associated with brain cancer include headache, seizure, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. Other possible signs and symptoms can include difficulty walking, change in vision, speech disturbances, and changes in mental capacity, behavior, or personality.

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Brain Cancer Symptoms

Not all brain tumors cause symptoms, and some (such as tumors of the pituitary gland, some of which cause no symptoms) are found mainly after death, with the death not caused by the brain tumor. The symptoms of brain tumors are numerous and not specific to brain tumors, meaning they can be caused by many other illnesses as well. Many people have no awareness that they have brain cancer. The only way to know for sure what is causing the symptoms is to undergo diagnostic testing. Early symptoms may not occur; if they do, they occur for the following reasons and are listed below:

  • The symptoms are caused by the tumor pressing on or encroaching on other parts of the brain and keeping them from functioning normally.
  • Some symptoms are caused by swelling in the brain primarily caused by the tumor or its surrounding inflammation.
  • The symptoms of primary and metastatic brain cancers are similar in men, women, and children.

The following symptoms and warning signs are the most common:

  • Headache, especially in the early mornings, which may become persistent or severe
  • Muscle weakness, which is often more evident on one side of the body than another
  • Paresthesias, like feeling pins and needles or reduced touch sensations
  • Clumsiness, problems with coordination, and/or a balance disorder
  • Difficulty walking, with weakness and/or fatigue of arms and legs
  • Seizures

Other nonspecific brain cancer symptoms and signs include the following:

  • Altered mental status: changes in concentration, memory, attention, or alertness and/or mental confusion
  • Nausea, vomiting: especially early in the morning with possible dizziness and/or vertigo
  • Abnormalities in vision (for example, double vision, blurred vision, loss of peripheral vision)
  • Difficulty with speech (impaired voice)
  • Gradual changes in intellectual or emotional capacity; for example, difficulty or inability to speak or understand, personality changes

In many people, the onset of these symptoms is very gradual and may be overlooked by both the person with the brain tumor and the person's family members, even for long time periods. Occasionally, however, these symptoms appear more rapidly. In some instances, the person acts as if he or she is having a stroke. In some patients, the symptoms may be more pronounced if the cancer is located mainly in a specific brain lobe that is usually responsible for certain body functions. For example, behavioral changes may predominate in frontal-lobe cancers while difficulty with speech or movements may predominate in cancers within the parietal lobe.

Brain Cancer Causes

As with tumors elsewhere in the body, the exact cause of most brain tumors is unknown.

The following factors have been proposed as possible risk factors for primary brain tumors, but whether these factors actually increase an individual's risk of a brain tumor is not known for sure.

  • Radiation to the head
  • A hereditary (genetic) risk
  • HIV infection
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Environmental toxins (for example, chemicals used in oil refineries, embalming chemicals, rubber industry chemicals)

Brain Cancer Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Slideshow

Brain Cancer Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment Slideshow

Brain cancer is a malignant growth of abnormal brain cells in the brain. A grouping of abnormal cells is called a tumor. Some tumors are benign and some are malignant. There are several different types of tumors that occur in the brain and spinal cord. Different cells in the brain and spinal cord give rise to various kinds of tumors. Spinal cord tumors and brain tumors may grow quickly or slowly. Even benign tumors may cause symptoms. The brain is the central organ that governs other organs and systems in the body, so all brain tumors need to be taken seriously.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.