Causes of Brain Cancer

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

What causes brain cancer? Keep reading this lesson to learn about two types of brain tumors and to find out why these cancers develop in the first place.

Types of Brain Tumors

To help us understand the causes of brain cancer, let's first explore the two types of brain tumors: primary and secondary. Primary tumors originate in the brain's tissues. They form due to a mutation in the cells that allows the cells to divide and multiply at rates faster than normal. (Cancer of any kind occurs when cells rapidly multiply instead of dying at the end of their healthy life span. As a result, tumors, or groups of unhealthy cells that clump together, form and wreak havoc in the body.)

Secondary tumors result from cancers that start elsewhere in the body and then move to the brain. These are also called metastatic tumors. Secondary brain tumors form in individuals with a personal history of cancer; the most common types of cancers known to spread to the brain include breast cancer, colon cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, and melanoma. In rare cases, a brain tumor might be the first identified type of cancer in a patient, when actually cancer first developed elsewhere in the body and went undetected. Secondary brain tumors are far more common than primary brain tumors.

It's also important to note that only malignant brain tumors, which are those that can grow quickly and spread aggressively, are cancerous. Benign brain tumors, which grow slowly and rarely spread, are not.

An example of a metastatic (secondary) brain tumor that originated from lung cancer.
metastatic brain tumor

Causes of Brain Tumors

Though we know that DNA mutations are ultimately responsible for cancer formation, there are risk factors that can help predict who might be affected. One variable is age; people become more at-risk for brain cancer as they grow older. That being said, there are certain types of brain cancer, such as brain stem glioma and medulloblastoma, that are almost exclusively found in children.

Another variable is radiation exposure. Unfortunately, this radiation isn't just due to industrial radiation; it can even be from radiation therapy, a common treatment type to certain cancers.

Finally, individuals with a family history of brain tumors are at higher risk of brain cancer themselves.

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