Brain and central nervous system cancers

In 2017 in Northern Ireland, a total of 150 cases of brain and central nervous system cancers were diagnosed. Benign brain tumours and malignant primary brain tumours are uncommon. Brain tumours can occur at any age. Generally, the tumours that tend to occur in adults become more common with increasing age. The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of a malignant brain tumour depend on how big it is and where it is in the brain.

Early symptoms may include:

  • Headaches and feeling sick - these symptoms may come and go at first and tend to be worse in the morning. Coughing, sneezing and stooping may make the headaches worse.
  • Epileptic seizures (convulsions) sometimes occur. Increasing drowsiness may occur as the tumour enlarges.

Note: most people who have headaches or epilepsy do not have a brain tumour.

As a tumour grows symptoms vary from case to case depending on which part of the brain is affected and on the size of the affected area. For example, one or more of the following may develop:

  • weakness of muscles in an arm, leg, part of the face, or eyes;
  • problems with balance, co-ordination, vision, hearing, speech, communication or swallowing;
  • loss of smell;
  • dizziness or unsteadiness;
  • numbness or weakness in a part of the body;
  • confusion, personality changes, including abnormal and uncharacteristic behaviour;

 Symptoms related to hormone changes if you have a pituitary tumour:

  • irritability, drowsiness, apathy or forgetfulness;
  • vomiting, which is sometimes sudden and for no apparent reason;
  • partial loss of vision or hearing;
  • hallucinations;
  • flickering of the eyes.

These symptoms tend to develop gradually. It is important to see a doctor if you develop a persistent and severe headache that does not appear to have any obvious cause, especially if you also have unexpected vomiting. 


There are a number of websites that provide information relating to brain and central nervous system cancers, these include:

This is not an exhaustive list and other sources of support in Northern Ireland can also be accessed via Northern Ireland Cancer Network.