The Most Common Brain Tumor: 5 Things You Should Know

Brain Tumor Education – American Brain Tumor Association

The Most Common Brain Tumor: 5 Things You Should Know | Johns Hopkins Medicine

A brain tumor is a growth of abnormal cells that have formed in the brain. Some brain tumors are cancerous (malignant), while others are not (non-malignant). Either way, tumors in the brain or central nervous system. The central nervous system is made up of the brain as well as the spinal cord. It can affect the brain’s ability to work normally.

What is the difference between malignant and benign brain tumors?

Whether a tumor is benign or malignant depends on the level of cell abnormality. If the tumor is made up of normal looking cells, then it is benign; however, if the cells are abnormal, then the tumor is malignant.

“Benign” brain tumors are not cancer, although they often cause symptoms and will sometimes require treatment. Although many people are familiar with the term “benign,” it’s not always an accurate description. Even a so-called “benign” tumor is a serious medical condition. For that reason, we prefer to use the term “non-malignant” to describe brain tumors made up of noncancerous cells.

Malignant brain tumors are cancer. They generally grow faster and more aggressively than non-malignant tumors, invade other areas of the brain and spinal cord, and can be deadly.

Are All Brain Tumors Brain Cancer?

No. In fact, most brain tumors are not cancerous. Less than one-third of brain tumors are cancerous (malignant).

What is Tumor Grading?

A tumor grade is a way to classify a tumor and will help members of the healthcare team communicate more clearly about the tumor, determine treatment options, and predict outcomes.

Tumors are assigned Grade I, II, III, or IV abnormalities of the cells they contain. A tumor can have more than one grade of cell. The highest, or most malignant, grade of cell determines the tumor’s grade, even if most of the tumor is made up of lower-grade cells.

World Health Organization (WHO) Tumor Grade Descriptions

Grade I: These are the least malignant tumors and are usually associated with long-term survival. They grow slowly and have an almost normal appearance when viewed through a microscope.

Grade II: These tumors are slow growing and look slightly abnormal under a microscope. Some can spread into nearby normal tissue and recur, sometimes as a higher grade tumor.

Grade III: These tumors are malignant, although there is not always a significant difference between grade II and grade III tumors. The cells of a grade III tumor are actively reproducing abnormal cells, which grow into nearby normal brain tissue. These tumors tend to recur, often as a grade IV.

Grade IV: These are the most malignant tumors. They reproduce rapidly, can have a bizarre appearance when viewed under the microscope, and easily grow into nearby normal brain tissue. These tumors form new blood vessels so they can maintain their rapid growth.

Overview of the Brain’s Anatomy

The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is the most critical organ in the body. It directs and regulates all body functions.

The brain is made up of multiple parts, and each part of the brain is responsible for a different body function. Therefore, brain tumor symptoms, and potential treatment options, depend a great deal on where the tumor is located.

Brain Tumor Statistics

Brain tumors do not discriminate. They affect all ages, genders, and ethnicities.

  • Over 700,000 Americans are living with a brain tumor today.
  • Nearly 80,000 people will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor this year.
  • There are more than 120 different types of primary brain and CNS tumors.
  • Approximately one-third (32 percent) of brain and central nervous system (CNS) tumors are malignant.
  • About 28,000 kids in the United States are fighting brain tumors right now.
  • This year, nearly 16,000 people will die as a result of a brain tumor.
  • Survival after diagnosis with a primary brain tumor varies significantly by age, tumor type, location, and molecular markers.

Brain Tumor Statistics by Age

  • The median age at diagnosis for all primary brain tumors is 60 years
  • Brain tumors are the second most common cancer among children 0-14. They are the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in this age group, outpacing even leukemia according to a 2016 report.
  • More than 4,600 children and adolescents between the ages of 0-19 will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor this year
  • Brain and CNS tumors are the third most common cancer among adolescents and young adults (ages 15-39) and the third most common cause of cancer death in this age group

Risk Factors for Brain Tumors

Risk factors are things that may increase a person’s chance of getting a disease. Some risk factors, age, genetics, and family history, are our control. Other risk factors, smoking, are within our power to change.

Most of the time, we don’t know what causes a given person to develop a brain tumor. Having one or more risk factors does not automatically mean that you’ll develop a brain tumor, just as the lack of risk factors doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never develop one. Talk with your doctor about what you can do to reduce your risk.

Environmental Risk Factors

Of the many potential risk factors scientists have studied, only one – exposure to ionizing radiation – has been clearly shown to increase the risk of developing brain tumors. Ionizing radiation is frequently found in X-rays, which is why human bodies are protected by lead shields when some X-rays are performed.

Genetic Risk Factors

Anything that refers to the genes can be called “genetic.” However, only about 5 to 10 percent of brain tumors are passed down from one generation to another in a family (heredity).

In cases of hereditary brain tumors, a mutation change in the DNA sequence that makes up a specific gene is passed from parent to child. Most genetic risk factors are not present at birth, but actually develop as we age.

While most of our genes do their jobs as expected, a small number develop a mutation or other error that causes them stop working the way they should.

This malfunctioning can change the way cells grow, which may eventually lead to the development of cancer.

If multiple members of your family have been diagnosed with brain tumors, or you have concerns about starting a family, a genetic counselor may be able to help. Contact the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service (1-800-422-6237) to find a genetic counselor in your area.


Early symptoms of a brain tumor: Mental and physical signs

The Most Common Brain Tumor: 5 Things You Should Know | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Medically reviewed by Nancy Hammond, MD on September 2, 2019 — Written by Beth Sissons

  • Symptoms
  • What else could it be?
  • When to see a doctor
  • Summary

Brain tumors can cause both physical and mental symptoms. The symptoms can differ depending on the type, location, and stage of the tumor.

Some symptoms can be quite general. These include headaches, vision problems, and mood changes. Seizures and personality changes can also signal the presence of a brain tumor.

If a person notices any early symptoms of a brain tumor, they should speak to their doctor for a thorough diagnosis. Early diagnosis and treatment can lead to better outcomes.

This article looks at various symptoms of brain tumors, including those linked to different types and locations of tumor, as well as the risk factors for each.

Brain tumor symptoms are similar regardless of whether they are cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign).

They may differ depending on the type, location in the brain, and the stage of the tumor.

Some of the most common symptoms of a brain tumor include:

  • headaches
  • seizures
  • changes in personality
  • vision problems
  • memory loss
  • mood swings
  • tingling or stiffness on one side of the body
  • loss of balance
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • anxiety or depression
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty communicating as usual
  • feeling confused or disorientated
  • loss of coordination
  • muscle weakness

Primary brain tumors are tumors that begin in the brain.

In the sections below, we look at several types of brain tumor and their specific symptoms:


Roughly one-third of primary brain tumors are meningiomas. They are usually benign and slow growing.

They grow from tissue covering the brain and spinal cord and create pressure on these areas.

Meningiomas are rare in children and most common in women over the age of 60.

Symptoms of meningioma can include:

  • headaches
  • weakness in the arm or leg
  • seizures
  • changes in personality
  • vision problems


Glioblastomas are malignant tumors. They can be fast growing and require more intensive treatment.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, healthcare providers assign a grade to tumors depending on how abnormal the cells they contain are.

Grade 1 tumors are the least malignant and grade 4 are the most malignant. Glioblastomas are grade 4 tumors.

Glioblastomas create pressure on the brain, and symptoms include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • headaches, which may be more intense in the morning
  • weakness in the body, such as in an arm, a leg, or the face
  • difficulty balancing
  • problems with memory
  • seizures


Share on PinterestHeadaches, memory loss, and seizures are all early symptoms of astrocytomas.

Astrocytomas are brain tumors that grow from cells called astrocytes, which make up brain tissue.

They can range from grade 1 to 4, with grade 1 tumors being slower growing than grade 4 tumors.

Some of the early symptoms for astrocytoma include:

  • headaches
  • memory loss
  • seizures
  • changes in behavior


A craniopharyngioma is a benign tumor that develops close to the pituitary gland. It is much more common in children than adults. Medulloblastoma and ependymomas are also more common among children.

The tumor creates pressure on the pituitary gland and optic tract, which is an extension of the optic nerve. This can cause the following symptoms:

  • delay in development
  • obesity
  • vision problems due to a swollen optic nerve
  • hormone problems

Pituitary tumors

Pituitary tumors develop in the pituitary gland and affect hormone levels. They tend to be more common in women and make up 9–12% of all primary brain tumors.

They are slow growing, though larger tumors can create pressure on surrounding areas of the brain. These tumors can secrete pituitary hormones and cause additional symptoms.

According to the American Cancer Society, tumors that start in the pituitary gland are almost always noncancerous.

Symptoms of pituitary tumors include:

  • headaches
  • vision problems
  • changes in behavior
  • changes in hormone levels


Metastatic brain tumors, or secondary brain tumors, form in other parts of the body where cancer is present and move to the brain through the bloodstream.

Metastatic brain tumors present the same symptoms as primary brain tumors, with the most common symptoms being:

  • headaches
  • seizures
  • short term memory loss
  • changes in personality or behavior
  • weakness on one side of the body
  • balance difficulties

Symptoms of brain tumors can also be similar to those of other medical conditions, such as headaches and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Most headaches do not signal the presence of a brain tumor, and experiencing a headache by itself is usually not a cause for concern.

However, signs that a headache could be a symptom of a brain tumor include:

  • persistent headaches, particularly if the person has no history of severe headaches
  • headaches that increase in intensity over time
  • headaches that are worse in the morning
  • headaches that wake people up from sleep

Learn more about the possible causes of persistent headaches here.

If a person experiences frequent or severe headaches, they may have migraine, tension, or cluster headaches. These can also create feelings of nausea.

Symptoms of migraine can range from mild to severe and include:

  • nausea, which may worsen with activity
  • a throbbing sensation on one side of the head
  • increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • facial pain

A migraine headache can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, or even weeks.

Read about the possible causes of headache with nausea here.

Tension headaches are usually mild to moderate, and symptoms include:

  • headaches that build slowly
  • dull pain on both sides of the head
  • pain that can spread to the neck

Cluster headaches cause severe pain and occur in bursts. These episodes can last anywhere from 1 to 3 hours. Symptoms include:

  • pain on one side of the head
  • sudden pain around the eye area
  • swelling or drooping of the eye
  • feeling restless or agitated
  • watery eyes and nasal congestion
  • eye redness

MS is a condition that affects the central nervous system and can produce similar symptoms to those of a brain tumor. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • difficulty balancing
  • fatigue
  • mood swings
  • depression
  • numbness or tingling in the face, arms, or legs
  • weakness in the body
  • problems with vision

Less common symptoms include seizures, problems with speech, and hearing loss.

Share on PinterestA person should see their doctor if they experience seizures, unexplained vision problems, or communication difficulties.

People should see their doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • seizures
  • weakness, numbness, or tingling in one side the body
  • unexplained vision problems
  • communication difficulties
  • changes in personality or behavior

A doctor will take a full medical history and perform a range of neurological tests to see what is causing the symptoms. For example, they may:

  • run CT scans or MRI scans, to provide an image of the brain
  • conduct tests to check balance, vision, and coordination

Also, if they locate a tumor in the brain, they may take a tissue sample, or biopsy, to find out what type it is.

A person should see their doctor if they experience severe or frequent headaches. They will be able to rule out any underlying causes and suggest lifestyle changes or treatment options.

If a brain tumor is present, treatment will depend on the type and stage of the tumor. Options may include surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy to remove or shrink the brain tumor.

People should see their doctor if they experience any of the symptoms listed above. Many of the symptoms overlap with those of other causes and may signal another health condition.

Tracking any symptoms can help a doctor determine a diagnosis. Keeping track of what time and how frequently symptoms occur can also help.

If a person does have symptoms that signal a brain tumor, early diagnosis and treatment are important to help prevent the tumor from growing.