Overview of Brain Cancer

Cancer of the brain can be a primary brain tumor that originates in the brain or a metastatic (secondary) brain tumor that originates from cancer cells that have migrated from other parts of the body.

Primary brain cancer rarely spreads beyond the central nervous system, and death results from uncontrolled tumor growth within the limited space of the skull. Metastatic brain cancer indicates advanced disease and has a poor prognosis.

Primary brain tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous. Both types take up space in the brain and may cause serious symptoms (e.g., vision or hearing loss) and complications (e.g., stroke).

All cancerous brain tumors are life threatening (malignant) because they have an aggressive and invasive nature. A noncancerous primary brain tumor is life threatening when it compromises vital structures (e.g., an artery).

Brain Cancer Incidence and Prevalence

In the United States, the annual incidence of brain cancer generally is 15–20 cases per 100,000 people. Brain cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in patients younger than age 35.

Primary brain tumors account for 50 percent of intracranial tumors and secondary brain cancer accounts for the remaining cases. Approximately 70,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with primary cancer each year and about 14,000 die of the disease. The annual incidence of primary brain cancer in children is about 3 per 100,000.

Secondary brain cancer occurs in 20–30 percent of patients with metastatic disease and incidence increases with age. In the United States, about 100,000 cases of secondary brain cancer are diagnosed each year.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Jul 1999

Last Modified: 02 Sep 2015