Brain cancer

Almost 1,900 new cases of brain cancer are diagnosed in Australia every year.

What is brain cancer?

Brain cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the brain develop and grow rapidly to form malignant tumours that can invade other areas of the central nervous system. 

While increasing age is a risk factor for brain cancer, which typically peaks in the 80-84 age group, it can affect people of all ages, including children. 

It is estimated that in 2021, 1,896 new cases of brain cancer (1,113 people assigned male at birth and 767 people assigned female at birth) were diagnosed in Australia, making up 1.3% of new cases diagnosed in that year. Sadly, there were an estimated 1,528 deaths from brain cancer in 2021. 

What are the types of brain cancer?

There are many types of brain cancer, which are grouped with spinal cord tumours and collectively known as central nervous system (CNS) tumours.

They can be categorised as: 

Primary tumours

Primary brain tumours that develop in the brain and may spread to other parts of the brain and spinal cord, but very rarely to other parts of the body.

Secondary tumours

Secondary tumours that have spread or metastasized from other areas of the body.

What are the common symptoms of brain cancer?

Brain cancer can have various symptoms depending on the tumour’s location, size and how fast it is spreading. 

Though they aren’t always an indicator of a brain tumour, it is not uncommon for headaches to be the first symptom, regardless of their frequency and severity, especially if they are accompanied by other neurological symptoms. 

Some other common symptoms include the following: 

  • Nausea and vomiting 

  • Seizures, whether severe or mild 

  • Weakness on one side or a part of the body 

  • Loss of balance or coordination 

  • Changes in personality, behaviour or thinking

  • Impaired vision, hearing, smell, taste, or sense of touch

  • Difficulty speaking or remembering words 

  • Dizziness or loss of consciousness 

  • Drowsiness or fatigue 

  • Memory problems 

Because these symptoms may overlap with other diseases, it is crucial to see a GP as soon as possible if you or your child are experiencing any of them. This is particularly important if you have a family history of brain cancer. 

How is brain cancer diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there is currently no population-wide screening program in Australia. However, there are a number of tests that can be used to diagnose brain cancer, which include: 

  • A neurological examination that checks your reflexes, strength, balance and coordination, vision, hearing, and ability to feel sensation, among other tests. 

  • Imaging tests such as a CT, MRI or PET 

  • Surgical biopsy of brain tissue or a lumbar puncture of the fluids around your spinal cord 

What is the prognosis for brain cancer?

In the last 30 years, the five-year relative survival for brain cancer has seen a dismal increase from 20% to 22%. Despite its high mortality rates and devastating effects on affected individuals, it is one of the most underfunded cancer types and receives less than 5% of federal government cancer research funding. 

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