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Brain cancer

There are many different types, grades and forms of brain tumours and brain cancer. A brain tumour is an abnormal mass of cells growing in the brain.

There are two basic kinds of brain tumours – primary brain tumours and metastatic brain tumours.

Brain tumours are categorised according to where the tumour originated, its pattern of growth and whether it is benign or cancerous. The tumour is also graded by its degree of malignancy and its chances of growing and spreading. There are approximately 130 different types of brain tumour. Names of the more common varieties include: gliomas (astrocytomas, glioblastomas, oligodendrogliomas, ependymomas and mixed cell type gliomas) meningiomas, medulloblastomas and central nervous system lymphomas.

Brain tumours can be benign or malignant.  Malignant brain tumours are also called brain cancer.

Primary brain tumours

A tumour that starts in the brain is a primary brain tumour. Primary brain tumours may be grouped into "benign" and "malignant" tumours. Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), astrocytoma, medulloblastoma and ependymoma are examples of primary brain tumours.

A benign tumour consists of very slow growing cells, usually has distinct borders, and rarely spreads. Treatment and/or surgery is often effective, however, if a benign tumour is located in a vital area of the brain, it can be considered life-threatening.

Malignant brain tumours vary widely both in the way they grow and the way they respond to treatment. Some are neatly contained within a capsule (encapsulated) and relatively easy to remove. Others have long, thin filaments spreading through the brain, like the roots of a plant.

Benign Tumours:

  • Slow growing

  • Distinct borders
  • Rarely spreads

Malignant Tumours:

  • Usually rapid growing
  • Invasive
  • Life threatening

Metastatic brain tumours

Metastatic brain tumours begin as cancer elsewhere in the body and spread to the brain.  All metastatic brain tumours are malignant since they begin as cancer elsewhere in the body. Most common metastatic brain tumours start in the lung, breast, colon (bowel), or skin (melanoma).

For more information about metastatic cancer visit Cancer Council Australia, or Cancer Australia.

Brain cancer information from the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation

  • Around 1600 brain cancers are diagnosed each year in Australia

  • Only two in ten people diagnosed with brain cancer will survive for at least five years

  • For those aged 35–44, brain cancer accounted for the highest proportion of cancer expenditure, totalling $32 million

Causes and treatment

It is not known what causes brain cancer; it appears to occur randomly. For the vast majority of people with a brain tumour, no outside cause can be clearly identified.
Most astrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas occur when there is damage (a mutation) in genes that control how a cell grows and multiplies. The cells with the gene mutation develop into the tumour, but the abnormality cannot be inherited by the person’s children.

Known risk factors for astrocytomas and oligodendrogliomas include:

  • ionising radiation (X rays and gamma rays)
  • ageing
  • male sex (slightly higher risk than for females)
  • genetically inherited tendency (rare)

How the Florey is making a difference

Our Atomic pathology laboratory is making rapid progress in characterising and staging tumours based on an unbiased, rapid and entirely novel atomic spectroscopic imaging technology. The technology is being developed in conjunction with geoscientists and oncologists from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre 

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