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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.

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(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.

Additional Risk Factors

Scientists are still researching the exact causes of brain tumors, as well as possible risk factors.

Some additional factors that are under scrutiny include cigarette smoking, HIV infection, and exposure to certain environmental toxins, like those found in oil refineries and the rubber industry. Some occupations appear to have higher probabilities of workers developing brain cancers, but it’s important to note that correlation is not the same as causation.There also have been media claims about a number of everyday exposures, like cell phones and microwaves, that cause cancer, but it’s always in your best interest to thoroughly do your research before believing all of these claims.

Lesson Summary

What have we learned about the causes of brain cancer? Brain tumors are classified into two types: primary brain tumors and secondary brain tumors. Primary brain tumors are cancers that form originally in the brain, whereas secondary brain tumors are cancers that spread to the brain from other parts of the body.

Scientists are not 100% sure what causes brain cancers other than mutations within an individual’s DNA; however, there are a number of risk factors that might increase the likelihood of a brain tumor developing. These include age, family history, radiation exposure, smoking and other lifestyle choices, HIV infection, and exposure to environmental toxins.


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