Brain Tumors, Part 1 — Introduction, Incidence and Symptoms

What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a growth of abnormal cells inside the brain. Most brain tumors that children get are called primary brain tumors, meaning that they originated in the brain and did not spread from somewhere else. Tumors might be localized, remaining in one area, or they might be invasive, spreading into nearby tissues. Tumors are also categorized as benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). However, it is difficult to call any brain tumor "benign", because all can cause serious problems.

Tumors can destroy brain cells directly, or they can indirectly cause damage, through these mechanisms:  

  • causing inflammation
  • compressing (squeezing) other parts of the brain as the tumor grows
  • causing generalized swelling of the brain, called cerebral edema
  • causing increased intracranial pressure (the pressure inside the skull)

Brain tumors are classified by where they are in the brain, what kind of tissue they are composed of, whether they are benign or malignant, and many other factors. Some tumors tend to be hereditary, running in families. Other types, such as craniopharyngioma (KRAYN'-ee-oh-far-in-jee-oh'-mah), seem to be congenital, developing before birth. Ultimately, the cause of most brain tumors is not known.

Incidence and Prevalence

CT of head.

Brain tumors can occur at any age. Tumors of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) make up about 20 percent of all childhood cancer cases, which makes it second in number only to leukemias. The annual incidence of brain tumors in children under the age of 15 is about 3 per 100,000. More than 1,200 new cases of brain tumor occur each year.

The incidence of many tumors varies with the age of the patient. For example, gliomas account for 75 percent of brain tumors diagnosed in children, but only 45 percent in adults. Retinoblastoma is the only form of brain tumor that is commonly seen in the first year of life.


The symptoms of a brain tumor depend upon several factors, including the specific site of the tumor, the type of tumor, and the age and health of the patient. Symptoms might include the following:

  • headache
  • vomiting
  • personality or behavior changes
  • emotional instability or rapid emotional changes
  • intellectual decline
  • seizures
  • facial paralysis
  • eye abnormalities or double vision
  • reduced level of consciousness or decreased alertness
  • weakness or lethargy
  • Visit in hospital.
  • general ill feeling or malaise
  • swallowing difficulty
  • impaired sense of smell
  • uncontrollable movement
  • hand tremor
  • confusion

In infants, symptoms might include any of the following (some of these signs can only be seen by the healthcare provider):

  • bulging fontanels (the "soft spot" on the infant's head)
  • failure to thrive
  • increasing head circumference
  • separated sutures in the skull
  • no red reflex in the eye

Symptoms might change based on the status of the tumor. If swelling decreases, symptoms could decline, only to reappear if the swelling returns or the tumor grows. Change is common in the symptoms of a brain tumor.

For more information

Part 2 — Treatment, Side Effects and Restrictions

Part 3 — Implications for School

National Brain Tumor Foundation

22 Battery Street
Suite 612
San Francisco, CA 94111-5520
Patient Information Line:
1.800.934.2873 9am-5pm PST


P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
(800) 352-9424

Office of Cancer Communications

National Cancer Institute
Building 31, Room 10A-03
Bethesda, MD 20892-2580
800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237)

American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA)

2720 River Road
Suite 146
Des Plaines, IL 60018-4110
Tel: 847-827-9910 800-886-2282
Fax: 847-827-9918

American Cancer Society

National Home Office
1599 Clifton Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30329-4251
Tel: 800-ACS-2345 (227-2345)

Brain Tumor Society

124 Watertown Street
Suite 3H
Watertown, MA 02472-2500
Tel: 617-924-9997 800-770-TBTS (8287)
Fax: 617-924-9998

Children's Brain Tumor Foundation

274 Madison Avenue
Suite 1301
New York, NY 10016
Tel: 212-448-9494 866-CBT-HOPE (228-4673)
Fax: 212-448-1022

Contributed by:

Robert Trueworthy, MD
Section Chief of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology
University of Kansas Medical Center

Kathy Davis, MSEd, PhD
Associate Professor
Project Director, Connected Kansas Kids
Director, KU Kids Healing Place
University of Kansas Medical Center