What's a primary brain tumour?

4 minute read time.

The 16th International Brain Tumour Awareness Week will be held from Saturday, 29th October to Saturday, 5th November 2023 inclusive. According to 2016-2018 averages, 12,288 people in the UK are diagnosed with primary brain or central nervous system (CNS) tumours per year. The brain and the CNS can be complicated and daunting things to understand, and tumours in this area may seem an overwhelming topic. In this blog, our intern Molly goes over what brain tumours are.

What is the central nervous system and what does it do?

The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system. The brain controls how we think, feel, learn and move. It also controls other things in the body we don't have to think about, like breathing. The spinal cord is made up of nerves that run down the spine. Messages between the brain and other parts of the body travel through the spinal cord.

Main areas of the brain

This image is an illustration of a side view of the brain, inside the skull. The Cerebrum, the biggest part of the brain, is inside the bones of the skull. The Pituitary gland is behind the nose, just below the base of the brain. The Pineal gland is near the centre of the brain, between the two halves of the Cerebrum. The Cerebellum is below the Cerebrum, at the back of the brain. The brain stem is at the bottom of the brain and connected to the spinal cord. The spinal cord goes from the centre of the brain, down the neck.

Cerebrum  this is the largest part of the brain. It controls thinking, memory, behaviour, and personality. Cerebellum – this controls balance and coordination. Brain stem – this controls important body functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. Pituitary gland – this makes hormones that control other hormone-producing glands in the body. Pineal gland – this makes a hormone called melatonin, which helps control sleep patterns.

What are brain tumours?

A tumour that starts in the brain is called a primary brain tumour. These can be benign (not cancerous), which usually grow slowly and may not cause symptoms for a long time. They can also be malignant (cancerous), which grow faster than benign tumours, and can cause problems by spreading and affecting nearby areas of the brain.

Primary tumours are different to brain tumours that have started somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain. These are called secondary brain tumours or brain metastasises.

Often, brain tumours are described in terms of their type and how quickly they grow, which is called their grade. Brain tumours are often named after the cell they develop from or the part of the brain they start in. There are a lot of different types of brain tumours. You can find more information about specific brain tumours on our website.

Diagnosing brain tumours

If your GP thinks you may have a brain tumour, they may arrange for you to have a brain scan. They might refer you directly to a doctor who specialises in brain disorders (a neurologist). We have more information about how brain tumours are diagnosed on our website or in our resources on brain tumours, which are available to order free in various formats here.

If you are diagnosed with a brain tumour, your doctor will advise you on the best treatment options for your situation. You may find it useful to read experiences or talk to other people who have been affected by brain tumours in this Macmillan Online Community group.

This image shows a quote from Vivek, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2006. He says You can’t spend too much time thinking about it. When you’re in the middle of it, you have to just look forward and try to deal with it as best you can.

If you have any more questions about brain tumours, remember you can call the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm. 


To see what else Macmillan's cancer information team has been blogging about, please visit our blog home page! You can subscribe to receive our blogs by email or RSS too.

We're with you every step of the way

The Macmillan team is here to help. Our cancer support specialists can answer your questions, offer support, or simply listen if you need a chat. Call us free on 0808 808 00 00.

Comments? Feel free to add them below (you need to be logged in).

  • FormerMember

    Thank you for highlighing CNS lymphomas and how they affect what I call the body's management system. Like any cancer diagnosis, it's devastating to hear the dreaded words but from my experience, everyone copes with the treatment and ongoing symptoms differently. I am not who I was, but I have exceeded medical expectations, and you can too. You owe it to yourself to keep going and adapting to life after treatment.

  • <p>Hi ,</p> <p>Thank you for your comment. It&#39;s good to hear that you&#39;ve done so well. As you say, everyone responds and copes differently. What&#39;s good for one person may not be so good for someone else. So it&#39;s important people do what&#39;s right for them.&nbsp;<br /><br />Thanks for posting and all the best,<br />Liza</p>
  • FormerMember

    I am delighted you are highlighting Brain tumours, however as someone who had breast cancer back in 2004 and was successfully treated when my cancer returned earlier this year it had spread to my skull base and I would like to see this form of cancer also highlighted as I found it very hard to find out a lot about my condition and had to resort to American sites for information.

    For information Skull base cancer forms in the bone plate at the base of the skull that supports the brain inside your head. My symptoms were recurring sinus infections, dizzy spells and then severe headaches up one side of my head, as the condition worsened I developed a problem with my left eyelid which kept dropping this was followed by double vision and when this happened I was sent for scans however despite having a CT scan and an MRI nothing showed up until I was referred to the Cancer team at Clatterbridge when tumors were found in my Liver and thankfully my Oncologist decided to redo the head MRI scan but using a contrast dye this time and cancer then showed up. 

    I was treated with Radiotherapy and again thanks to the careful planning and precision delivery of the rays they managed to clear it and I regained normal sight and all the pain and other symptoms disappeared. 

    Skull base cancer is fairly rare but it does exist and it is a very hard cancer to diagnosis but can affect anyone who has had breast or prostate cancer and I would recommend if you have had either of these cancers to make yourself familiar with the various symptoms and if you are referred for an MRI scan please ask them to use a contrast dye.

  • <p>Hi ,&nbsp;</p> <p>Thank you for your comment and for telling us about your experience. We&#39;re sorry to read that you were diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer in the base of your skull.&nbsp;It is very rare to get a recurrence here as you probably know. It&rsquo;s good to hear that your radiotherapy went well and your pain and other symptoms have disappeared.</p> <p>If you have any more questions or want someone to talk to please call us on <strong>0808 808 00 00</strong>. Lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm.</p> <p>All the best,</p> <p>Liza</p>
  • Hi I have been diagnosed with TSH Secreting Tumours. I have 2 which are under 1cm each. Just started somatuline injections. If anyone going through same would love to hear from you. They are very rare. Thanks