Understanding Brain Tumors: The Basics

To help you begin to understand this complex group of tumors, we have compiled some of the key facts, statistics and information below. Learn about the Neuro-oncology Center at Roswell Park or consult the links and sources below for more information.

Brain Tumor Facts and Figures

  • There are approximately 120 different types of brain tumors. These tumors can be malignant or benign. In either case, they can be life threatening due to their effect on brain function.
  • More than 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a brain tumor each year.
  • Overall, the chance that a person will develop a malignant tumor of the brain or spinal cord in his or her lifetime is less than 1% (about 1 in 150 for men and 1 in 185 for women).

Primary Brain Tumors

  • Primary brain tumors are tumors that originate in the brain. In the United States, primary brain tumors are among the top ten causes of cancer-related death in women and the eleventh in men.
  • According to the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (CBTRUS), 79,870 primary, benign and malignant tumors of the brain and central nervous system (CNS) are expected to be diagnosed in 2018. Approximately 4,200 cases are expected to be diagnosed in people under age 20.
  • 93% of primary brain and CNS tumors are diagnosed in people over 20 years old; people over 85 have the highest incidence. The average age at diagnosis is 57.
  • Meningiomas are the most common brain tumor in adults, accounting for one out of three primary brain and spinal cord tumors. The risk of developing a meningioma increases with age, and they occur about twice as often in women.
  • About 3 out of 10 (30%) of all primary brain tumors are gliomas, or a group of tumors that start in the glial cells of the brain. Counting only malignant tumors, about 8 out of 10 (80 percent) are gliomas. Glioblastoma multiforme is the most common type of glioma.

Metastatic Brain Tumors

  • Metastatic brain tumors, or those that originate outside the brain, occur in 20-40% of people with cancer.
  • Breast, lung, colon, kidney and melanoma cancers are the most common cancers to metastasize to the brain.

Buffalo Goes Gray for Brain Cancer Research

Alyson Walter was diagnosed with a brain tumor before the age of 25, twice. After her successful treatments, she started an organization that has raised over $100,000 for brain cancer research at Roswell Park.

Learn More About Alyson's Story

Brain Tumors in Children and Young Adults

  • Brain tumors are the second most common malignancy among children, involving about one out of five pediatric cancer cases (20%).
  • Brain tumors are the leading cause of solid tumor cancer death in children. They are the second leading cause of cancer death in males up to 39 years of age and the fifth leading cause of cancer death in women 20-39 years of age.
  • The most common types of pediatric tumors are medulloblastomas, low-grade astrocytomas, brain stem gliomas and ependymomas.

Brain Tumor Symptoms

The symptoms of a brain tumor depend on size, type and location. Symptoms may be caused when a tumor presses on a nerve or harms a part of the brain. They may also be caused when a tumor blocks the fluid that flows through and around the brain or when the brain swells because of a buildup of fluid. The most common symptoms of brain tumors are:

  • Headaches (usually worse in the morning)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Changes in speech, vision or hearing
  • Problems balancing or walking
  • Changes in mood, personality or ability to concentrate
  • Problems with memory
  • Muscle jerking or twitching (seizures or convulsions)
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs

Most often, these symptoms are not due to a brain tumor. Another health problem could cause them. If you have any of these symptoms, it’s important to tell your doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated properly.

Brain Tumor Risk Factors

Researchers are studying whether people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop a brain tumor. Studies have found that ionizing radiation from high-dose x-rays (such as radiation therapy from a large machine aimed at the head) and other sources can cause cell damage that leads to a tumor. People exposed to ionizing radiation may have an increased risk of a brain tumor, such as meningioma or glioma.

Researchers are also studying whether other brain tumor risk factors exist, such as cell phone use, past head injuries or exposure to certain chemicals or magnetic fields. Studies have not shown conclusive proof of these possible risk factors and brain tumors, but additional research is needed.

Family History

It is rare for brain tumors to run in a family. Only a very small number of families have several members with brain tumors.


American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA)

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)

Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation (CBTF)

Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (CBTRUS)

National Brain Tumor Society (NBTS)

National Cancer Institute (NCI)

The original version of this blog was published on May 22, 2012.