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What is a brain or spinal cord tumour?

A brain or spinal cord tumour starts when abnormal cells grow and form a mass or a lump. The tumour may be benign or malignant, but both types can be serious and may need urgent treatment. Brain and spinal cord tumours are also called central nervous system or CNS tumours.

How are brain tumours classified?

Brain tumours are often classified as benign or malignant. These terms are also used for tumours in other parts of the body. But with brain tumours the difference is not as clear.

Benign tumours – Benign brain tumours usually grow slowly and are unlikely to spread. A benign tumour may grow and affect how the brain works. This can  be life-threatening and may need urgent treatment. Sometimes a benign tumour can change over time and become malignant.

Malignant tumours – A malignant brain tumour may be called brain cancer. Some malignant brain tumours grow slowly, while others grow rapidly. They are considered life-threatening because they may grow larger, spread within the brain or to the spinal cord, or come back after 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. 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). Gliomas are the most common type of malignant brain tumour.

Common types of primary brain tumours

Glioma tumours – These tumours start in the glial (neuroglia) cells of the brain.

astrocytomastarts in glial cells called astrocytes; may be benign or malignant
glioblastoma (GBM)type of malignant astrocytoma; may develop from a slow-growing astrocytoma; makes up more than half of all gliomas; common in both adults and children
ependymomastarts in glial cells called ependymal cells; more common in children than adults; may be benign or malignant
oligodendrogliomastarts in glial cells called oligodendrocytes, more common in younger adults; malignant, may be slow or fast growing

Non-glioma tumours – These tumours start in other types of cells found in the brain.

medulloblastomamalignant tumour; starts in the cerebellum; more common in children, rare in adults
meningiomastarts in the membranes (meninges) covering the brain and spinal cord; most 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 vestibular schwannomas (also called acoustic neuromas)

How common are they?

Every year an estimated 1900 malignant brain tumours are diagnosed in Australia. They are more common in men than women, 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. Data is not collected by every Australian state, but in 2017 there were more than 1200 benign brain and spinal cord tumours in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia combined.

Brain tumours in children

The information on our website is for adults with brain tumours. Brain tumours in children often form in different parts of the brain to adults, and may have different treatments 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 physical, behavioural or learning difficulties as a result of the tumour or treatment.

Health professionals to see – Doctors who specialise in treating children and young adults are called paediatricians. Some hospitals have play, music or art therapists, who can help children cope with the side effects of treatment. Rehabilitation will also be important.

Treatment – Talk to your child’s medical team about treatment options, what to expect and your concerns.

Support – The hospital social worker can link you to support services, and provide practical and emotional support. Organisations that offer support for families, young adults and children affected by cancer include:

Download our booklet ‘Talking to Kids About Cancer’

Listen to our podcast episode ‘Explaining Cancer to Kids’

Featured resources

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed in May 2022 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Lindy Jeffree, Neurosurgeon, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Emma Daly, Neuro-oncology Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cabrini Health, VIC; A/Prof Andrew Davidson, Neurosurgeon, Victorian Gamma Knife Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Department of Neurosurgery, Royal Melbourne Hospital, VIC; Beth Doggett, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Melissa Harrison, Allied Health Manager and Senior Neurological Physiotherapist, Advance Rehab Centre, NSW; A/Prof Rosemary Harrup, Director, Cancer and Blood Services, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; A/Prof Eng-Siew Koh, Radiation Oncologist, Liverpool Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital and University of New South Wales, NSW; Andy Stokes,