Brain Cancer Symptoms

This article describes the symptoms that commonly occur with brain tumors.  Not all tumors of the brain are cancer however whether cancer or benign they tend to cause similar sets of problems.  The prognosis and treatment may be vastly different but the main point of this article is assist with early recognition of “red flag” symptoms that might indicate the presence of a brain tumor.  After recognition of these symptoms, seeing your doctor for further advice and investigation is the next step.  It is common to ignore symptoms even if they are significant or falsely attribute them to something such as “migraines flaring up.”

There are many different types of brain tumors. 

The most common brain tumors are:

  • Metastatic tumors (tumor that has spread from another primary cancer)
  • Astrocytoma tumors
  • Oligodendroglial tumors
  • Ependymal tumors
  • Choroid plexus tumor
  • Glioblastoma
  • Mixed neuronal-glial tumors
  • Pineal tumor
  • Embryonal tumor
  • Nerve Sheath tumor
  • Meningioma
  • Lymphoma
  • Many others exist

Brain cancer is rare and accounts for about 1% of all adult cancers.  Some cancers have a propensity to spread to the brain such as lung cancer.  When someone has been diagnosed or treated with a cancer such as lung cancer, breast cancer or melanoma and begins to have symptoms of brain tumor – this is concerning for possible spread of the cancer to the brain and should be promptly investigated.

There are many possible types of tumors but the symptoms caused by these tend to be similar.  Some of the common symptoms are:

  • Headache: About half of people with a brain tumor will complain of headache.  This is a very common symptom associated with brain cancer.  Most headaches are not caused by brain tumors.  The headache of brain tumors tends to be dull and constant without relief.  A new onset headache that does not go away or is associated with altered mental status, nausea, vomiting or bodily weakness should be promptly investigated.  The severity is difficult to gauge but most people with a very severe headache will seek some type of medical attention.  A common thing heard from people with ruptured brain aneurysm is that “this is the worst headache of my life.”  These are not from cancer but still should be evaluated in a similar way.  The location of the headache is not terribly helpful (i.e. if the headache is on the right side of the head then this does not necessarily mean that is where the tumor is).
  • Nausea: Nausea or vomiting is quite common as brain tumors progress or grow.  This is usually a result of increase in the pressure in the skull.  The skull is a confined space without much room for expansion within.  The brain can accommodate for small increases in volume my shifting cerebrospinal fluid or blood around a bit (also known as Monroe-Kellie Doctrine).  After these minor compensations exceed their limits, the pressure within the skull rises quickly.  The average pressure should normally be about 1-10 mm Hg.  This pressure rises briefly with changes in position or sneezing, but should quickly return.  A severe headache with vomiting that does not relent is a major sign of brain disease and should be evaluated promptly.  These symptoms are even more concerning when combined with some alternation in consciousness.
  • Seizures: Seizure will be present with between 10-60% of people with brain cancer at some point.  Most do not have seizures initially.  A seizure is a rhythmic uncontrollable bodily movement that usually causes loss of consciousness.  A person has a seizure usually becomes incontinent as well.  Some seizures are not as dramatic but they all represent some type of brain irritation and should prompt investigation.
  • Sudden loss of consciousness: This is also known as syncope.  There is a very long list of causes for syncope and in addition to brain tumors include things such as heart attack or blood clot of the lung.  Irrespective of the cause this event is never normal and should prompt medical attention and investigation as to the cause.  The evaluation of syncope is complex and often requires many different types of tests.
  • Alterations in mental status:  As brain tumors affect different parts of the brain or raise the intracranial pressure, they will often cause some type of cognitive impairment.  Just as drugs or excessive alcohol intake will cloud perception and cause confusion, brain tumors can cause similar symptoms.
  • Specific Deficits:  There is a very long list of possible focal neurologic deficits that might arise from a brain tumor.  As the tumor invades, destroys, irritates, or compresses a specific area of the brain; the specific function of that area will be impacted in some negative way.  For example, in most people there is an area on the upper left of the brain that controls speech.  A tumor of this region may create loss of the ability to talk also known as aphasia.  The person will usually still be aware but frustratingly unable to communicate.  Similarly, movement or control of the legs or arms (generally on one side only) will be affected.  All these specific types of deficits should cause investigation and are also red flag symptoms.

After identification of a key symptom, the next step is to seek medical attention and this will usually prompt examination and some type of brain imaging such as CAT scan or MRI.


  3. Abeloff, M.D. (2008). Abeloff: Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology, 4th ed. Chapter 70.Philadelphia,PA: Churchill Livingstone – Elsevier
  4. Marx JA, Hocberger RS, et al.; Marx: Rosen’s Emergency Medicine, 7th ed. Chapter 101.Los Angeles,CA: Mosby Elsevier
  5. This article was originally published on September 3, 2012 and last revision and update was 9/4/2015.