Brain Cancer

The brain is a part of the body’s central nervous system and like other parts of the body can be affected by cancer. Brain cancer occurs when cells in the brain grow in a way that’s not normal and form tumours.

Brain cancer can happen at any age, although it is more common in older people than in younger people.

  • Headaches are often the first symptom of a brain tumour but there are a number of symptoms you should look out for, including:

    • severe headaches, which may or may not be accompanied by nausea and vomiting
    • weakness on one side of the body
    • seizures (or fits)
    • changes in thinking or personality
    • disturbed vision or speech
    • difficulty controlling movement (ataxia)
    • dizziness.

    Having these symptoms may not mean you have cancer, but it’s really important to check.

    If you have any of these problems, or are worried about something else, yarn with your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Health Worker.

  • You won’t know if you have brain cancer until your doctor has talked to you, completed an examination and done some tests. The tests might include:

    • a physical examination
    • a lumbar puncture, also called a spinal tap, where a needle is put into your back to collect some fluid near the spinal cord to test for cancer cells
    • imaging tests like an ultrasound, a CT scan or MRI scan to see what your insides look like
    • Taking a sample from the tumour, called a biopsy, for examination under the microscope.

    Most people who have these tests find out they don’t have cancer. But it’s really important to check.

  • If you have brain cancer, you might be told it’s a certain 'grade'. This describes whether or not it has spread within your brain or spinal cord, and how far. Brain tumours rarely spread outside the brain and spinal cord.

    Knowing the grade of the cancer helps you and your doctors to decide on the best treatment for you.

    • Grade 1: The tumour grows slowly and rarely spreads to nearby tissues.
    • Grade 2: The tumour grows slowly but may spread to nearby tissues.
    • Grade 3: The tumour grows quickly and is likely to spread to nearby tissues.  It looks very different to surrounding cells.
    • Grade 4: The tumour grows very quickly. The cells look the most abnormal.

    With all stages of brain cancer, there is plenty of treatment and support that can help you, including traditional medicine and practices like ceremony and being on Country.

  • Most people with brain cancer have surgery. Some also have radiotherapy or chemotherapy or targeted therapy. If you have brain cancer, you might need one of these, or a combination of them.

    Your doctors will talk to you about what treatments they recommend and what your options are, so there won’t be any surprises.

    Yarn with your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Health Worker about which treatment/s you might have and including any traditional medicine and cultural practices as part of your treatment plan.


    Surgery is done to take out the cancer and help stop it from spreading. Brain tumours can be removed completely by surgery called craniotomy.

    You will need to stay in hospital and have an anaesthetic and an operation. Sometimes you may need to have radiotherapy after surgery to reduce the size of the cancer or reduce the chance of the cancer coming back.

    Your doctor will yarn with you about what treatments they recommend, and which options are best for you. It is important to also talk to your doctor about what support you and your family need during this time and any traditional medicine or cultural practices you want to include.

    Read more about surgery.


    Radiotherapy, also called radiation therapy, uses X-rays to destroy cancer cells in one specific part of your body.

    Most people who have radiotherapy have it 5 days a week for 4-6 weeks, and each session takes an hour or so. But it might be different for you.

    You can only have radiotherapy in cities and some big towns – see this list. If your doctor thinks radiotherapy would help, and you don’t live near a radiotherapy site, there is help to find somewhere to stay, support to keep you connected to family  and assistance to cover expenses. Having family with you during radiotherapy treatment is an important support that helps keeps you strong.

    Yarn with your doctor, nurse, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Health Worker or social worker about your radiotherapy and what support you and your family need before, during and after treatment. Being away from Country and family can be distressing so making sure you have the right support is important.

    Read more about radiotherapy.


    Chemotherapy, or ’chemo’, involves you taking strong drugs to kill the cancer cells.

    Many people have chemotherapy in cycles which will be outlined to you by your treating team.  Most chemotherapy for brain cancer comes as a tablet that you can take at home. Some people may need to go to hospital or a clinic to get treatment in the form of injections.

    Chemo can make people feel sick for a while, but there are things they can do to help.

    Yarn with your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Health Worker about combining medical and traditional practices to address side effects.

    Read more about chemotherapy and side effects.

    Targeted therapies

    Targeted therapies are newer drugs that try to stop the cancer growing. Targeted therapies attack cancer cells without harming healthy cells. If your doctor thinks they might help, here are some questions to ask. 

    Read more about targeted therapy.

  • It’s important for you to understand why you are getting the treatment your doctor recommends and how it is supposed to help you. Different treatments try to do different things. It depends on what cancer you have, and whether it has spread, and what you want. Ask your doctor or specialist if the treatment they suggest:

    • is meant to cure you, by getting rid of the cancer and stopping it spreading, or
    • won’t cure you, but is meant to prolong your life, or make your feel better.

    Your doctors should talk to you and explain this. You can talk to them, ask questions, and tell them what you think, and what you want. Some people will want to try everything possible to stay alive. Others want simpler treatments, or don’t want to leave Country for treatment, or don’t want any treatment. You can yarn with your doctor about any traditional healing, bush medicines and cultural practices you want to include during your treatment plan. It’s your choice. You can also talk to another doctor to help you decide.

  • It can take time to decide about treatment. There are usually some options to hear about and choices to make. You can read more about treatment.

    It can be helpful to write things down and have someone else come to appointments to help remember information.

    Yarn with your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker about treatment. You can also yarn about any traditional healing, bush medicines and cultural practices you want to include during your treatment plan.


  • Always ask about the cost of treatment. Many treatments are free through public hospitals, but some are not. Yarn with your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker.

    Learn more about financial support.


  • It all depends on the type of treatment you’re having. People will have treatment for different durations of time. After treatment is over, your doctor might keep in touch with you to check how you’re going and monitor your health.

    During your cancer journey you will have the opportunity to build trust and safe relationships with your doctors, nurses and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health workers that may last beyond your treatment.

  • It is not possible to say what causes brain cancer in a single person. We do know there are some features that are more common in people who develop brain cancer. These features are called ‘risk factors’.

    But it is usually hard to be sure whether a risk factor contributed to the development of the cancer. And having one or more risk factors for brain cancer does not mean that someone will definitely develop this cancer. In fact, many people with brain cancer have no obvious risk factors.

    The known risk factors  for brain cancer are:

    • getting older
    • having a family history of brain cancer.

    If you have any of these risk factors or you’re worried about your risk for brain cancer, yarn with your doctor, nurse or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker.

  • Clinical trials might be an option for you. Talk to your doctor to help you decide if taking part is a good option. You can read more about clinical trials.


    Read more detail on brain cancer here.

Life with and after cancer


Where can I get help and support?