Seven possible symptoms of brain cancer to be aware of

Although brain tumours are relatively rare, around 12,000 people are diagnosed with one in the UK every year.

On 13 November, TV presenter Jonnie Irwin, host of Channel 4’s A Place in the Sun and BBC’s Escape to the Country revealed his diagnosis.

Irwin, 48, said he has terminal cancer that spread from his lungs to his brain and he doesnt “know how long” he has left to live.

He said that the first time he realised something was wrong was when his vision went blurry while driving in 2020, when he was filming A Place in the Sun.

Within a week of flying home from filming, Irwin said he was told that he had only “six months to live”. He initially kept his diagnosis a secret, but has decided to make it public to “inspire people who are living with life-limiting prospects to make the most of every day”.

The late former Cabinet minister Baroness Tessa Jowell was another public figure who had a brain tumour. She died in 2018, aged 70, a year after being diagnosed.

Before her death, Baroness Jowell made it clear she wanted to help transform brain tumour treatment, research and survival to ensure all patients received the best possible care.

Four years on, her dream is becoming a reality as the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission (TJBCM) – the organisation set up in her name – has awarded nine neuro-centres around the country “Tessa Jowell Centre of Excellence” status, recognising the outstanding care and treatment they deliver.

Jowell’s daughter, Jess Mills, co-founder of TJBCM, says her mother’s goal was to tackle systemic inequality: “So, it was tragic while fitting that her final campaign was to create universal equality in access to excellence in cancer care throughout the NHS It is with immeasurable pride that just three years later, we’ve begun the translation of that vision into reality.

“Shockingly, the UK still has one of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe but, in time, the Tessa Jowell Centres will make the UK a global leader in the treatment and care of brain tumour patients. We have a long way to go, but this is a huge first step.”

Dr Catherine McBain, a consultant clinical oncologist at The Christie in Manchester, one of the hospitals to be named a Tessa Jowell Centre of Excellence, stresses: “While all neuro-centres provide high quality care, the nine designated centres are recognised for going above and beyond for their patients.

“While a brain tumour diagnosis can be devastating, patients should feel confident that across the country, NHS staff are working hard to provide the best possible care today, while working on the treatments of tomorrow.”

Sarah Lindsell, CEO of The Brain Tumour Charity, says the Tessa Jowell awards are “a major step forward in driving up standards for brain tumour patients”.

“Early detection remains a critical and unique challenge in brain tumours,” Lindsell adds.

“The signs can sometimes be vague and many of the most common symptoms, such as persistent headaches or coordination problems, can have a variety of other causes, which may or may not be serious.

“We would encourage anyone experiencing symptoms that are unusual for them – and particularly if they experience a combination of symptoms, or if these signs are persistent or unexplained – to be checked by a GP.”

Dr McBain explains that symptoms that may suggest a brain tumour tend to be changes that develop and get worse over a period of weeks to months, with additional symptoms also developing in that time.

“Other than a seizure, which may occur on its own, most people will have a combination of symptoms, which develop and become more noticeable over a period of two to three months,” Dr McBain says.

“That’s the situation that should cause you to talk to your GP.”

So what are those potential symptoms?

Remember, none of these automatically mean you have a brain tumour but, if you are concerned, see your GP.

1. Seizures

If you have a fit or a seizure out of the blue, you should go to A&E, where an urgent brain scan would be considered.

2. Weakness of the face/arm/leg on one side of the body

Such weakness may come on suddenly, like a stroke, or may become more noticeable gradually over a few weeks, for example dragging your leg or tripping over curbs because you do not seem to be able to lift your foot up properly.

3. Marked speech disturbance

Slurred speech, being unable to find your words or coming out with the wrong words. Struggling to find a word sometimes is normal but it would become worrying for a brain tumour if it was becoming steadily worse over a period of weeks or months and was associated with other symptoms.

4. Personality change

People who have a brain tumour may become steadily more withdrawn or confused over a period of a few months, or struggle with tasks they used to be able to do, such as playing an instrument or doing internet banking.

5. Vision changes

Sometimes, tumours in the brain reduce our ability to see objects to one side. This might cause people to bump into doorframes, not be able to see someone sitting on the left or right side, or clip the wing mirrors of parked cars if driving. If you are concerned about vision changes, begin by seeing an optician, who can perform a full eye test and refer you to hospital if necessary.

6. Difficulty reading or interpreting words

You may notice that over a few weeks, you are increasingly struggling to write emails or send texts, or to work out what subtitles or words in a book say – you may be able to see the words clearly, but the brain refuses to interpret them or make sense of them.

7. Headaches

Headaches are the symptom most people associate with brain tumours, but it is actually relatively unusual for them to be the only symptom of a brain tumour.

When it comes to being concerned about brain tumours, doctors talk about “headache plus”, meaning headache plus other symptoms. Worrying headaches are those that have become “clearly, definitely and progressively worse” over a period of two to three months and that become associated with some of the other symptoms.

If headaches are the only symptom, it is usually a headache that is different to any one you have ever had before and that becomes much more severe very quickly, over a period of a few weeks. It may be present in the morning, waking you from sleep or become associated with nausea, vomiting and drowsiness.

For further information, see The Brain Tumour Charity.