Symptoms and Diagnosis

In this section you can find out more about:

Remember, everyone is different and your symptoms and experience may be different from that described below. If you have any further questions, be sure to ask your medical professional.


Brain cancer can result in a range of different symptoms, simply because the brain plays a part in all of the body’s functions and senses.

Sometimes tumours inside the skull can cause an increase in pressure (called intracranial pressure) which leads to symptoms such as:

  • Headache
  • Feeling sick (nausea and/or vomiting)
  • Blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Personality or behaviour changes
  • Seizures (fits)
  • Drowsiness.

About half of all patients with brain tumours get headaches that worsen over time. Many people also develop seizures (fits) and these can often be the first symptom a person gets.

These symptoms may not necessarily indicate that you have brain cancer. This is the reason to see your doctor for further investigation.

Depending on which part of the brain or central nervous system is affected by the tumour, other symptoms can occur. These include:

  • Weakness or numbness in part of the body, usually just on one side
  • Problems with speech or with understanding what people are saying
  • Difficulty thinking straight or problem solving
  • Problems with movement, such as poor coordination, uncontrolled movements or difficulty walking
  • Vision problems
  • Loss of hearing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Bladder or bowel problems (if the spinal cord is affected).

Many of these symptoms may have other causes, so it’s important to see your doctor if you are experiencing any of these.

A Diagnosis of Brain Cancer

Many people are diagnosed with a brain tumour if they have a seizure or other sudden symptoms. Others visit their GP to discuss symptoms. If your GP suspects a brain tumour, he or she will usually refer you to a specialist known as a neurologist.

Your specialist will determine whether you have a brain tumour by conducting a range of tests. These may include:

  • A neurological examination:
  • Imaging tests:
    • A CT scan or computerised x-ray
    • An MRI scan or
    • This involves your doctor asking you a series of questions to test how your central nervous system is working, in particular your thinking and memory; your balance, coordination and strength; your reflexes; and your senses.

    • A PET scan.
    • These are tests which allow your doctor to see whether there are any tumours in the brain or spine. There are a number of scans you could have including:
  • A lumbar puncture:
  • This is a procedure in which the doctor inserts a hollow needle into your spine to remove some of the fluid which surrounds the spinal cord and the brain (known as CSF) to see whether it contains cancer cells.

  • A biopsy:
  • This is an operation in which the surgeon removes cells from the tumour to determine what kind of tumour it is and whether it is cancerous.

Grades of Brain Cancer

The results of your biopsy will be used to determine what grade of brain cancer you have.

The “grade” of cancer is simply a measure of how different the cancer cells are compared with normal cells.

There are four grades of brain cancer:



Grade 1

The tumour is a slow-growing cancer called a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma (JPA). This can often be treated surgically.

Grade 2

The tumour has lots of cells in it (this is known as ‘hypercellular’), but there are no dead cells in the tumour (patches of dead cells are called ‘necrosis’).

Grade 3

The tumour is hypercellular and contains cells that are actively dividing. This type of glioma is often called an anaplastic astrocytoma.

Grade 4

This type of tumour is usually a glioblastoma (also called glioblastoma multiforme or GBM). This cancer has characteristics of grade II and III tumours; cells are actively dividing, there are patches of dead cells (necrosis), and the tumour has started to develop its own blood vessels.

Your doctor will make treatment decisions based on the grade of cancer you have, the size and location of the tumour and your general health.