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Toby after his first brain surgery

What is Brain Cancer?

A brain tumour is a collection of abnormal cells growing in or around the brain. All brain cancers are tumours but not all tumours are cancerous (or “malignant”). The cause is unknown.

There are many different types of brain tumour – they can be primary or secondary tumours. Primary brain tumours originate in or next to the brain and secondary brain tumours (or metastases) are tumours that have spread to the brain. Secondary brain tumours are classified as malignant because they started as cancer elsewhere in the body. For example, metastatic lung cancer began as cancer in the lung which has spread to the brain.

Primary brain tumours are graded from I – IV based on how the tissue looks under a microscope. These grades help determine the treatment for that tumour type and helps to determine the outcome for the patient. For example, a Grade I primary brain tumour has well-defined edges and surgical treatment is usually curative. Grade IV brain tumours such as Glioblastoma (GBM) is fast growing, abnormal appearance under a microscope and associated with a very poor prognosis.


There is no ‘one-size fits all’ treatment. Treatment depends on many factors including type of brain tumour and overall health.

First treatment used for a brain tumour is often surgery to remove as much tumour as safely possible, provide a sample to be examined under the microscope to confirm diagnosis and reduce tumour to be treated with radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Tumours of Grade II or higher usually require a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Treatment decisions are made together with the patient, family and clinicians including neurosurgeons, oncologists and allied health team members.


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Dr Heidi McAlpine (Neurosurgeon Trainee and Researcher), Dr Lucy Gately (Medical Oncologist and Researcher), Associate Professor Misty Jenkins (AO Laboratory Head at WEHI and Joint Head of Research Strategy) at The Brain Cancer Centre and Dr Sarah Best (Scientist and Laboratory Head at WEHI Institute) at The Brain Cancer Centre.

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