Brain cancer

Note: The information on cancer types on the ACRF website is not designed to provide medical or professional advice and is for information only. If you have any health problems or questions please consult your doctor. All statistics have been sourced from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Brain Cancer Statistics:

  • In 2009, 1,596 new cases of brain cancer were diagnosed in Australia.
  • Brain cancer is more common in men, with 1 in 100 men and 1 in 151 women being diagnosed by age 85.
  • The five-year survival rate for Australians diagnosed with brain cancer is 21.9 per cent.
  • In 2010, there were 1,247 deaths from brain cancer.

 More cancer stats

Brain Cancer Overview

Brain cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the brain grow in an uncontrolled way.

Brain cancers include primary brain tumours, which start in the brain, and secondary tumours (or metastases) which are caused by cancers that began in another part of the body.

There are more than 40 major types of brain tumours, which are grouped into two main types: benign (slow growing tumours which are unlikely to spread) and malignant (cancerous and able to spread into other parts of the brain or spinal cord).

However, because the brain is enclosed in the skull, even benign tumours can be dangerous. The skull cannot expand to make room for a growing tumour, so the tumour may press on or damage delicate brain tissue, becoming life threatening. Some benign brain tumours can also eventually give rise to malignant cells. For these reasons, instead of ‘malignant’ or ‘benign’, brain tumours are often described as being ‘high-grade’ (rapidly growing) or ‘low-grade’ (slowly growing).

The most common type of benign (slow growing) tumours are:

  • Meningiomas: A tumor that arises from the meninges — the membranes that surround your brain and spinal cord. They occur most commonly in older women.
  • Neuromas: A thickening or a growth on the nerve cells. Acoustic Neuroma (tumour on the nerve connecting the ear to the brain) is one of the most common.
  • Pituitary tumours: A mass that grows on the Pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain just behind the nose. These tumours are quite rare.
  • Craniopharyngiomas: Tumours that occur at the base of the brain, above the pituitary gland. This rare tumour most commonly affects children but adults can also be affected.

The most common malignant (rapidly growing) tumours include:

  • Oligodendrogliomas: Tumours which form on the cells that make up the supportive, or glial, tissue of the brain most commonly found on the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.
  • Astrocytoma: Tumours which occur on the star-shaped cells that form the “glue-like” tissue of the brain. Commonly found on the cerebellum, the cerebrum, the central areas of the brain, the brainstem and the spinal cord.
  • Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM): Tumours that arise from the supportive tissue of the brain. These tumours grow very quickly as they are supported by a large network of blood vessels.
  • Ependymomas: A rare type of glioma. This tumour arises from the ependymal cells that line the ventricles of the brain and the centre of the spinal cord. People of all ages can develop ependymomas, including children.
  • Mixed gliomas: A malignant glioma made up of more than one type of glial cell. They are often found in the cerebrum, but may spread to other parts of the brain. They are most common in adult men.

Brain Cancer Symptoms

  • Severe headaches, which may or may not be accompanied by nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Dizziness
  • Changes in thinking or personality
  • Difficulty controlling movement
  • Disturbed vision or speech

It is important to note that there are a number of conditions that may cause these symptoms, not just brain cancer. If any of these symptoms are experienced it is important to discuss them with your GP.

Brain Cancer Treatment

Brain cancer can be treated with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy or steroid therapy, or a combination of these treatments. The type of treatment will depend on several factors including the stage of the disease, the severity of symptoms and the general health of the patient.

Types of brain surgery:

  • Craniotomy; the tumour is removed completely.
  • Shunts; if a fluid build-up in the brain is a problem, the surgeon may put in a small permanent tube just under the skin, called a shunt, to take the extra fluid from the brain into the abdomen.
  • Biopsy; a portion of the tumour is removed and looked at under a microscope to see what type of tumour the patient has.

Some tumours can be removed completely by surgery (craniotomy). If a tumour has spread, or if it cannot be removed without damaging other important parts of the brain, the surgeon may still be able to remove part of the tumour, which will improve symptoms and quality of life by reducing the pressure on the rest of the brain.

Radiotherapy (x-rays that kill or injure cancer cells so they cannot multiply) is then used after the operation to help control tumour re-growth and help improve survival.

For glioblastomas, an oral chemotherapy drug called ‘temozolomide’ may be added during or after radiotherapy treatment to further improve the patient’s outcome.

Other chemotherapy schedules may also be used to enhance treatment of the brain cancer.

In the event that the tumour cannot be removed by surgery, the aim of treatment is to slow the tumour growth and relieve symptoms by shrinking the tumour.

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