Brain cancer can cause a variety of neurological symptoms, as well as systemic (whole body) effects. Brain cancer may develop gradually, without any noticeable signs or with minimal symptoms, and it may suddenly cause severe, rapidly worsening effects. The signs of a brain tumor often correspond to its location in the brain.
If you have neurological symptoms, it’s important that you see a doctor. And if you have already been diagnosed with brain cancer, you should be familiar with the signs that it could be progressing so you can get prompt medical attention and treatment.
The most common symptoms of brain cancer are related to swelling and compression in the brain. Sometimes the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain can accumulate due to blockage of the normal flow, causing increased intracranial pressure. These effects usually cause generalized problems, like fatigue, head pain, and changes in consciousness.
Often, the specific neurological effects of brain cancer (like weakness on one side of the body) can be associated with the tumor’s location in the brain or with compression of a certain region of the brain.
The symptoms of brain cancer don’t always match up to the tumor location—a tumor in the brain can cause more compression elsewhere in the brain, and the symptoms may correspond to the area of compression, not the area of the cancer.
Common symptoms of brain cancer include:
- Headaches and/or neck pain that can sometimes change with your body position
- Vertigo (a sense that the room is spinning)
- Fatigue or lethargy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired coordination
- Weakness or sensory changes on one side of the body and/or face
- Slurred speech
- Trouble swallowing
- Nausea and vomiting
- Vision changes
You can have one or more of these brain cancer symptoms, and they can occur suddenly, without warning. If you have any of the mild signs of a brain tumor, be sure to see your doctor so you won’t unexpectedly have a more severe effect.
Children may have many of the same effects as adults, as well as incontinence, trouble sleeping, diminished appetite, irritability, and personality changes. And in very young children, increased intracranial pressure may cause the head to appear enlarged.
Sometimes brain cancer can cause less common effects that you might not directly associate with brain tumors. Certain types of brain cancer, such as pituitary tumors and neurofibromas, are associated with specific symptoms that aren’t normally present with the majority of brain tumors (often in addition to common symptoms).
Examples of less common types and symptoms of brain tumors include:
These cancers can cause vision problems due to compression of the optic chiasm (an area in the brain where visual pathways cross). They can also cause hormonal alterations, affecting growth patterns in children, menstruation, weight, body temperature, thirst, urination, and more. Pituitary cancer may need to be treated with surgery.
Neurofibromatosis type 1 and neurofibromatosis type 2 are characterized by multiple tumors in the brain, most of which are benign (not harmful) and some of which can become cancerous.
Symptoms can include ringing in the ears, hearing loss, and facial weakness, as well as many of the usual symptoms of brain cancer. The condition is also characterized by café au lait spots, which are dark spots on the skin.
Acoustic neuroma (vestibular schwannoma) is an uncommon type of brain tumor that is usually benign, but it can be cancerous. It grows from the acoustic nerve near the ear and may cause a sensation of fullness near the ear, ringing in the ears, vertigo, and/or hearing loss.
Central Nervous System Lymphoma
Central nervous system lymphoma is a type of brain cancer may develop in people who have an impaired immune system. Symptoms can include personality changes, headaches, diabetes insipidus (characterized by excessive thirst and excessive urination), as well as the other symptoms usually associated with brain cancer.
It’s rare for brain cancer to spread to other areas of the body. Often, metastatic (spreading) cancer from somewhere else in the body, like the lungs, breast, or kidney, can cause symptoms of brain cancer, along with symptoms of the primary cancer.
Complications of brain cancer include:
- Weight loss
- Back pain, or rib pain, or skull pain
- Abdominal swelling
- Difficulty breathing
- Disfigurement of the head and/or face
These complications may rapidly worsen and can be life-threatening. Brain cancer can bleed, and may lead to inflammation in the brain, increasing intracranial pressure. The most life-threatening effects of many types of cancer are often due to brain metastasis and increased intracranial pressure.
In some cases, herniation of the brain can occur. This is when the brain is pushed into the spinal cord due to severe pressure from the tumor, fluid, inflammation, and/or bleeding. Signs of brain herniation include rapid breathing and contracted, stiffened posture of the body.
Treatment Side Effects
With brain cancer, you can also experience the side effects of brain cancer treatment or treatment for another primary tumor. Radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy can all help shrink your brain cancer, but they also have a range of side effects.
Meningeal carcinomatosis, (also called carcinomatous meningitis or leptomeningeal metastases) is a condition in which a primary brain cancer or a cancer that has metastasized to the brain spreads to the meninges (the connective tissue sheet-like lining around the brain and spinal cord).
This condition can cause fever, a stiff neck, severe lethargy, seizures, and/or loss of consciousness.
When to See a Doctor/Go to the Hospital
If you have concerning neurological symptoms, you should talk to your doctor. A prompt diagnosis gives you the best chance of having a good outcome.
And if you have already been diagnosed with brain cancer, it’s important that you and the people who take care of you learn to recognize the signs of complications or worsening brain cancer so you can get the medical care you need.
Signs that you should see a doctor if you have brain cancer include:
- Persistent vomiting
- Worsening headaches
- Severe dizziness, vertigo, or balance problems
- Breathing difficulty or rapid breathing
- Chest pain
- Worsening neurological symptoms—weakness, sensory changes, speech difficulty, or vision changes
- Changes in consciousness
- Swelling of any part of your body
- A new seizure or worsening seizures
You and the people you live with should also know how to recognize the side effects of cancer treatments that you are receiving that may warrant medical intervention.
A Word From Verywell
There are many different kinds of brain cancer, and their effects vary. The prognosis is also highly variable among the different types of brain cancer. You should see a doctor if you experience any new neurological or systemic symptoms.
Brain cancer can often be treated, and you need to know the danger signs and the signs that it could be progressing so you can get prompt medical attention if you need it.