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Metastatic brain cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Benham Badie, MD, Neurosurgeon; The Heritage Provider Network Professor in Gene Therapy, City of Hope | Duarte.

This page was updated on May 12, 2023.

Brain metastases are the most common type of brain tumor, accounting for between 98,000 and 170,000 cases annually in the United States.

Primary brain cancer vs. brain metastasis

Primary brain tumors, generally called gliomas, arise from brain tissue and almost never spread beyond the central nervous system. Brain metastases are cancers that have spread (or metastasized) to the brain from a tumor that started in another part of the body, most commonly the lung. Secondary brain tumors are much more common than primary brain tumors.

Cancers that travel to the brain are still identified by the location in which they originated. For example, metastatic lung cancer found in the brain is still considered lung cancer, not brain cancer.

Lung cancer is the most common form of brain metastasis. In fact, lung cancer procedures performed to stage the disease often involve a brain scan. Other cancers that commonly metastasize to the brain include:

Sometimes, tumors are found in the brain or spinal cord and diagnosed as metastases that have spread from another location in the body, even before the primary cancer is detected. In some cases, the originating tumor may never be found. This is called cancer of unknown primary (CUP) and occurs in up to 5 percent of all cancers.

Metastatic brain cancer symptoms

Patients with brain metastases may experience symptoms such as:

  • Seizures
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Headaches
  • Changes in speech
  • Changes in coordination or balance
  • Altered mood, mental acuity or behavior
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Sharper or duller senses, such as hearing or smelling
  • Weakness affecting one side of the body

Cancer patients who experience any of these symptoms should contact their care team right away to evaluate the cause.

Treating brain cancer metastases

When cancer spreads to the brain from another part of the body, the care team develops a treatment plan based on the cancer type, the tumor size and location. The plan will also take into account the patient's preferences, overall health and current symptoms.

Brain cancer treatment options may include:

  • Surgery to remove as much of the tumor as is safely possible
  • Radiation therapy to destroy tumor cells and relieve symptoms
  • Chemotherapy, often in combination with surgery, to reduce tumor size
  • Targeted therapy, often in combination with other therapies, such as chemotherapy

Palliative care may also be used to treat symptoms rather than treating the disease. The patient's treatment plan should include ways to help him or her be most comfortable, so he or she should speak with the care team about any pain and comfort levels. They may be able to provide additional services or refer the patient to specialized palliative care.

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