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What is a brain or spinal cord tumour?

A brain or spinal cord tumour occurs when abnormal cells grow and form a mass or a lump. The brain and spinal cord are made up of two main types of cells: neurons and glial cells. The tumour may be benign or malignant, but both types can be serious and may need urgent treatment.

What types of tumours are there?

The brain is made up of different tissues and cells, which can develop into different types of tumours. There are more than 40 types of primary brain and spinal cord tumours (also called central nervous system or CNS tumours). They can start in any part of the brain or spinal cord. Tumours are classified based on the type of cell they start in and how the cells are likely to behave (based on their genetic make-up).

Common types of primary brain tumours

Glioma tumours – This is the most common category of brain tumour. Gliomas are tumours that start in the glial (neuroglia) cells of the brain.

astrocytomastarts in glial cells called astrocytes, most common type of glioma
ependymomastarts in glial cells called ependymal cells, more common in children than adults
glioblastoma (GBM)type of high-grade astrocytoma, makes up more than half of all gliomas, common in both adults and children
oligoastrocytomamixed glioma tumour; contains both oligodendroglioma and astrocytoma
oligodendrogliomastarts in glial cells called oligodendrocytes, more common in children than adults

Non-glioma tumours

medulloblastomahigh-grade tumour; starts in the cerebellum, more common in children; rare in adults
meningiomastarts in the membranes (meninges) covering the brain and spinal cord, common primary brain tumour, usually benign and slow growing
pituitary tumourstarts in the pituitary gland, usually benign
schwannomastarts in Schwann cells, which surround nerves in the brain, usually benign, includes acoustic neuromas (also called vestibular schwannoma

How common are they?

Every year an estimated 2000 malignant brain tumours are diagnosed in Australia, and can affect people of any age. About 100 children aged 0–14 are diagnosed each year.

Benign brain and spinal cord tumours are more common than malignant tumours.

Brain tumours in children

The information on our website is for adults with brain tumours. Brain tumours tend to be different in children. They often form in different areas, and may have different treatment and outlook.

In Australia, about 100 children aged 0–14 are diagnosed with a malignant brain or spinal cord tumour each year. Children are more likely to develop tumours in the lower part of the brain, which includes the areas that control sleep/wake functions, movement and coordination.

Gliomas and medulloblastomas are the most common types of brain tumours in children.

Prognosis – In general, children diagnosed with a malignant tumour will have a better outlook than adults. In many children, treatment will cause all signs of the cancer to disappear. Because a child’s nervous system is still developing, some children may have a physical, behavioural or learning disability as a result of the tumour or treatment.

Health professionals to see – Health care professionals who specialise in treating children and young adults are called paediatricians. Some hospitals have play therapists, music therapists or art therapists, who can help children cope with the challenges of treatment. Rehabilitation will also be important for a child’s recovery.

Treatment – Talk to your child’s medical team about treatment options, what to expect and your concerns. The hospital social worker can provide practical and emotional support.

Support – Organisations like Camp Quality, CanTeen and Redkite offer support for families, young adults and children affected by cancer. Redkite offers a print and online picture book called ‘Mary has a brain tumour’ that you can read with your child.

Download our booklet ‘Talking to Kids about Cancer’

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Understanding Brain Tumours

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed in May 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Andrew Davidson, Neurosurgeon, Macquarie University Hospital, NSW; Dr Lucy Gately, Medical Oncologist, Oncology Clinics Victoria, and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, VIC; Melissa Harrison, Allied Health Manager and Senior Neurological Physiotherapist, Advance Rehab Centre, NSW; Scott Jones, Consumer; Anne King, Neurology Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Health Department, WA; Dr Toni Lindsay, Senior Clinical Psychologist and Allied Health Manager, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, NSW; Elissa McVey, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Claire Phillips, Deputy Director, Radiation Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC.