Brain tumour, malignant (cancerous)

A malignant brain tumour is a fast-growing cancer that spreads to other areas of the brain and spine.

Most malignant brain tumours are secondary cancers, which means they started in another part of the body and spread to the brain. Primary brain tumours are those that started in the brain.

There are different types of primary malignant brain tumour, depending on the type of brain cells they have grown from. The most common type is a glioma, which accounts for more than half of all primary brain tumours.

Generally, brain tumours are graded from 1 to 4 according to their behaviour, such as how fast they grow and how likely they are to spread. A malignant brain tumour will be either grade 3 or 4, whereas grade 1 or 2 tumours are usually classed as benign or non-cancerous brain tumours.

These pages focus on malignant brain tumours. Read benign brain tumours for information about brain tumours grade 1 or 2.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of a malignant brain tumour depend on how big it is and where it is in the brain.

The tumour can put pressure on the brain and may cause headaches and seizures (fits). It can also prevent an area of the brain from functioning properly.

Read more about the symptoms of a malignant brain tumour.

Who is affected?

Brain tumours can affect people of any age, including children.

There are about 5,000 new cases of malignant (cancerous) brain tumours in the UK each year. Most are caused by cancer that starts somewhere else in the body.

The exact cause of primary malignant brain tumours, which start in the brain, is unknown. However, an underlying genetic disease, such as neurofibromatosis, can increase your risk of developing one.

Read more about the possible causes of a malignant brain tumour


Primary tumours

A primary malignant brain tumour needs to be treated as soon as possible because it can spread and damage other parts of the brain and spinal cord.

The tumour is usually operated on and as much of it as possible is removed. This may be followed with radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a combination of both. However, malignant tumours will often return.

The outcome for malignant primary brain tumours depends on a number of things, such as the type and location of the tumour and how ill you were when diagnosed.

For more information, go to Cancer Research UK's page on statistics and outlook for brain tumours.

Secondary tumours

Secondary brain tumours are serious as they have already spread throughout the body. Treatment aims to improve symptoms and prolong life.

Read more about treating a malignant brain tumour.


After treatment, several types of therapy will be available to help you recover.

Your doctor can refer you to a counsellor if you want to talk about the emotional aspects of diagnosis and treatment. There are also many organisations and helplines, such as Brain Tumour UK, that provide information and support.

Read more about recovering from treatment for a malignant brain tumour.

Living with a brain tumour

Living with a brain tumour is not easy. The future can look very unpredictable and the unknown can be frightening.

As well as medical worries about tests, treatments and side effects, it is also common for patients to worry about life’s practicalities. For example, patients may worry about who will care for their family when they feel too ill to do so.

This panic and anxiety is a natural response and one that will affect everyone concerned. Changes in daily routines and responsibilities are often necessary and this is something that involves the whole family. Try to ensure that everyone knows what is happening and has an idea of what to expect. 

The following are a few suggestions that may help you, your family and close friends deal with the changes in your lives:

  • Seek accurate medical information about the disease and your treatment options.
  • Make sure you are involved in decisions about your care and treatment. This can help to dispel the fear of the unknown and the feeling that you do not have any control of what is happening to you.
  • Take a notepad with you if you find it difficult to remember questions and the answers, and write things down to refer to later. 
  • Set your own limits according to how you feel. Do not push yourself to perform at the level you were before the diagnosis and think you have to carry on as usual. 

Read further information about living with a brain tumour on The Brain Tumour Charity's website.

Support for carers

Being a carer is not an easy role. When you are busy responding to the needs of others, it can deplete your reserves of emotional and physical energy and make it easy for you to forget your own health and mental wellbeing.

Research on carers’ health shows that high numbers of carers suffer health effects through caring. If you are trying to combine caring with a paid job or looking after a family, this can cause even more stress.

But neglecting your own health does not work in the long term. If you are caring for someone else, it’s important to look after yourself and get as much help as possible. It is in your best interests and those of the person you are caring for.

For more information on the support available to you and benefits you may be entitled to, visit the Carers Direct website.

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