Brain tumors: Learn about the different types, symptoms, and advanced treatments at UAB

During Brain Cancer Awareness Month in May, the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB makes a special effort to educate and support patients and caregivers affected by brain tumors.

A brain tumor is a mass of cells growing in the brain or central spine. There are two basic types: cancerous (malignant) and non-cancerous (benign). Benign brain tumors are much more common and almost always treatable.

Malignant brain tumors

About 28% of all brain tumors are malignant, and there are two types:

  1. Primary brain tumors, which are specific types of masses or growths of abnormal cells that start in the brain and quickly spread to surrounding tissue. 
  2. Secondary brain tumors, which form when cancer in another part of the body – such as the breast, lung, or skin – spreads to the brain. Secondary brain tumors are five times more common than primary brain tumors.

Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most common and aggressive primary brain tumor. It can quickly spread throughout the brain but in most cases does not spread beyond the brain or nervous system.

Benign brain tumors

About 72% of all brain tumors are benign. They form when a group of cells, usually from nerve tissue or blood vessels, develops into a mass. Benign brain tumors do not contain cancer cells, and most have clear borders, which means that they do not spread to surrounding tissue.

Benign brain tumors usually grow slowly and rarely become cancerous. Most can be removed and do not return. Even benign tumors can be dangerous, though, because they can damage healthy brain cells. They are almost always treatable using surgery and/or radiation, though chemotherapy is rarely used on non-cancerous brain tumors.

Know the symptoms

Brain tumors usually don’t have obvious symptoms. The following symptoms are not necessarily signs of brain cancer, but people with brain tumors may have:

  • Morning headaches, or headaches that end after vomiting
  • Vision and hearing problems
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Changes in behavior, personality, or mood
  • Loss of mental focus
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty walking, loss of balance
  • Weakness
  • Constant sleepiness or extreme drop in activity level

Know the risk

  • An estimated 700,000 Americans are living with a primary brain tumor.
  • Men have a slightly lower risk, as about 59% of all brain tumors occur in females.
  • Brain tumors can occur at any age and are one of the most common cancers diagnosed in children from birth to age 14. However, the median age at diagnosis for a primary brain tumor is 61 years.
  • Most people diagnosed with a primary brain tumor do not have any known risk factors. People who’ve been exposed to radiation therapy used to treat cancer or radiation caused by atomic bombs may have an increased risk of developing certain types of brain tumors.
  • Certain rare genetic (inherited) disorders may increase the risk of developing a brain tumor, but there is little evidence that brain cancer runs in families.
  • The five-year survival rate for people with a malignant brain tumor is nearly 36%. People with a glioblastoma have a five-year survival rate of about 7% and a median survival time of just eight months.

Treatment options

The O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB (OCCC) is Alabama’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center and a national leader in cancer research. This allows our providers to deliver the latest research-based care, including immunotherapy, gene therapy, and cancer stem cell-targeted therapy.

Specialized treatments available at the OCCC include:

  • Image-guided surgery for benign and malignant brain tumors, which allows for safer and more complete removal of tumor material without damaging healthy brain tissue.
  • Surgery performed while the patient is awake, which is used when operating on certain areas of the brain and helps the surgeon remove as much of the tumor as possible without affecting parts of the brain that control important functions. This method also reduces the risk of problems after surgery.
  • Fluorescence-guided surgery for malignant brain tumors, which makes tumor cells easier to see during the procedure and helps surgeons remove the greatest number of cancer cells.


Cancer specialists at the OCCC conduct research to better understand brain cancer and find new treatments. Current research studies are focused on new versions of existing cancer drugs, new combinations of medications to treat tumors, weight loss and diet plans for cancer survivors, new surgical methods, and ways to get the greatest possible benefit from certain radiation therapies.

The OCCC participates in the Glioblastoma Therapeutics Network, in cooperation with the Translational Genomics Research Institute, to develop new or improved treatments for glioblastoma. These studies, along with others being conducted elsewhere, may give patients access to advanced treatments not offered at most other medical centers.

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