What Causes Brain Cancer?

Doctor looking at scan of brain

Brain cancer can be categorized as one of two main types: primary or secondary (metastatic) brain tumors. Primary brain tumors originate in the brain, whereas metastatic brain tumors develop in other organs – such as the breast or lung – and then spread to the brain. While secondary brain tumors are caused by other types of cancer growing and metastasizing, researchers can’t pinpoint the precise causes of primary brain cancer. They can, however, explain how malignant brain tumors form.

Generally speaking, brain tumors are a result of genetic mutations in healthy cells. These genetic mutations cause healthy brain cells to grow and divide much faster than normal, while also preventing them from dying off when their natural life cycles complete. This rapid buildup of cells is what forms a tumor.

Although the exact causes of primary brain cancer aren’t fully understood, there are several factors that have been attributed to an increased risk for developing it.

Brain cancer risk factors

Brain cancer risk factors are particular traits that have been linked to an increased likelihood of developing a malignant brain tumor. It’s important to note that individuals who possess one or more risk factors might never develop cancer, while individuals with no risk factors could end up developing the condition.

Environmental risk factors

Some risk factors are outside influences that can be controlled. For instance, some known environmental risk factors of brain cancer include exposure to radiation and certain chemicals. Radiation exposure typically comes from radiation therapy that’s directed to the head for treating other conditions, such as leukemia. Exposure to vinyl chloride, petroleum products, and other chemicals has been linked to brain cancer in some studies, but not others.

There are some other environmental risk factors that are considered more uncertain or controversial, such as cell phone use, consumption of aspartame, exposure to electromagnetic fields from power lines and infection with certain viruses. These suggested factors haven’t shown enough evidence of increased risk, however, and more research is needed.

Genetic risk factors

Genetic risk factors are biological and can’t be changed. Some of these risk factors associated with brain cancer include:

  • Gender. Overall, brain cancer is more prevalent among men (although some specific types of brain tumors are more commonly diagnosed in women).
  • Age. Brain cancer can affect people of any age, but it more commonly occurs in children.
  • Family history. In rare instances, brain tumors run in families. Some of these families have disorders such as neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, von Hippel-Lindau disease, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and other inherited conditions.
  • Compromised immune system. People with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to developing lymphomas of the brain.

Brain cancer treatment at Moffitt

Moffitt Cancer Center’s Neuro-Oncology Program takes a multispecialty, comprehensive approach to treatment. Our brain cancer team comprises experts from all areas of treatment – neurosurgeons, medical oncologists, neuropathologists, radiation oncologists, etc. – who collaborate to create individualized treatment plans, ensuring the best possible outcome and quality of life for each of our patients.

As a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Moffitt is also recognized for its robust clinical trials program and ongoing research initiatives. Our patients have access to the most innovative and groundbreaking treatments before they are widely available.

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Michael Vogelbaum, Program Leader, Department of Neuro-Oncology.

For more information about brain cancer causes and risk factors, call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online. No referrals are needed to visit Moffitt Cancer Center and consult with an oncologist specializing in the treatment of malignant brain tumors.