Symptoms and diagnosis of brain cancer

Symptoms

Different areas of your brain control different parts of your body, so the symptoms depend on where the tumour is located. The symptoms also depend on the amount of pressure the tumour is putting on your skull. This is referred to as raised intracranial pressure. Some symptoms caused by a brain tumour include:

  • Personality or behaviour changes
  • Changes in intellect or memory problems
  • Speech difficulties
  • Problems writing, reading or calculating
  • Unco-ordinated movements or unsteadiness
  • Flickering of your eyes
  • Facial weakness
  • Weakness on one side of your body
  • Loss of smell
  • Loss of vision or problems with vision
  • Problems swallowing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Headache – worse in the morning or during the night or when you sneeze/cough or bend down
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Fits or seizures or blackouts

If you have any of the above symptoms, get them checked out by your doctor. But they can occur in many conditions other than cancer. Remember if you suffer from seizures, you may not be allowed to drive. Your doctor will advise you about this situation.
For more information, contact the National Cancer Helpline 1800 200 700 to speak to one of our specialist cancer nurses.

Screening

Testing for brain tumours when you have no symptoms is called screening. There is no screening programme for brain tumours. If you are worried about brain tumours or if you have a symptom, contact your GP.

Diagnosis

First, visit your family doctor (GP) if you are worried about any symptoms. Your GP can examine you and do some tests. If your GP is still concerned about you, he or she can refer you to a hospital specialist called a neurologist for more tests. For this, you may need to travel to a specialist centre for neurology.

Your doctor may decide to do some of the following tests:

  • Physical exam
  • Mental assessment
  • Eye exam or eye test
  • Hearing tests
  • Testing your facial muscles
  • Testing your swallowing or gag reflex
  • Checking the strength in your limbs
  • Checking your balance or co-ordination
  • Checking the sensation on your skin

These are all simple tests that your doctor can do on your first visit. Your doctor will explain if you need further tests, such as:

Blood tests

  • X-rays
  • MRI scan
  • CT scan
  • PET scan

Special tests

EEG: The test records the electrical activity in your brain. It is often done if you have had seizures. A technician will first put several plastic discs (electrodes) around your scalp and ask you to keep still. The brain activity is then recorded and shown on a printout like on an ECG test. The test does not hurt and lasts about an hour.

Angiogram: This test looks at the blood vessels in your head. It is done if your doctors are concerned that your tumour is close to a blood vessel. During the test, you lie down on a bed while your doctor injects a dye into the blood vessels in your groin. This will show up the blood vessels so they can appear clearly on a scan. The test does not hurt but may last a few hours.

Biopsy: Your doctor may need to do a biopsy of your tumour to find out exactly what type of tumour you have. A biopsy is a small tissue sample of the tumour. You will be put to sleep for the biopsy. First, your doctor will make a small hole in your skull (burr hole) and put a needle in to collect the tissue samples. Scans of your brain will help your doctor to know the exact location of your tumour. The biopsy is then sent to the laboratory and examined. You will need to stay in hospital for several days after the biopsy.

Learn more about the above tests

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm