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What is Metastatic Brain Cancer?

Mary McMahon
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Metastatic brain cancer is a form of cancer which originates elsewhere in the body and spreads to the brain. Historically, brain metastases have been fatal in most cases, due to the delicacy involved in treating cancers of the brain. Advances in cancer treatment and neurosurgery have increased the rate of survival for people with metastatic brain cancer, but it is still a very serious diagnosis which requires prompt action for the best prognosis.

In order for cancer to travel to the brain, it must pass through the bloodstream. Lung cancers are especially prone to metastasizing to the brain, although other types of cancer including bladder and breast cancer may spread to the brain as well. Because the tumor originates elsewhere in the body, rather than in the brain itself, metastatic brain cancer is also sometimes referred to as “secondary brain cancer.” It is about 10 times more likely to develop metastatic brain cancer than it is for a tumor to arise in the brain independently.

People with metastatic brain cancer generally develop neurological symptoms, of a nature which can vary, depending on the location of the cancer. Slurred speech, confusion, poor coordination, memory loss, vision problems, and loss of speech can all occur with metastatic brain cancer. Patients who present with these symptoms will generally be asked to undergo medical imaging studies so that doctors can see what is going on inside the brain, and these studies will reveal the presence of a tumor.

There are several treatment approaches to metastatic brain cancer. In some cases, it is possible to remove the tumor, which will relieve pressure on the brain and reduce the risk of spreading. After surgery, the patient may undergo chemotherapy or radiation to kill rogue cancer cells. In other instances, surgery may not be an option, in which case targeted radiation therapy or whole brain radiation therapy will be used in an attempt to stop the tumor from growing.

Left untreated, metastatic brain cancer can be fatal in weeks. This cancer moves rapidly and aggressively, which is why it is important to see a doctor about neurological symptoms in the early stages, so that a tumor can be identified before it has had a chance to spread any further. People with cancer are often especially alert to the possibility of the spread of the cancer, and their routine medical checkups may include screening for the early signs of metastasis.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By julies — On May 19, 2011

My aunt had a brain tumor, but it was not cancer. They were able to do some surgery and she has not had any problems since then. I know she is fortunate that she was able to have surgery because many times when you are dealing with certain areas of the brain, that is not an option.

I have heard that radiation is a common form of treatment for brain cancer when they cannot have surgery done or chemo will not help. They have to be so precise with radiation to the brain. It is very scary when you think about dealing with tumors in the brain - even with all the advances they have in medical care.

By SarahSon — On May 16, 2011

There are several more options for metastatic brain tumors than there used to be, but it is still a very scary time for all those involved. The course of treatment is different for each person and for the type of cancer and how far it has spread to other parts of the body.

Dealing with the brain is always so tricky. My sister had a brain tumor and they cannot operate either because of where it is located. She also had radiation for the tumor because that is the only form of treatment they had. The radiation is supposed to shrink the tumor and she has to go back for frequent check ups to keep an eye on it.

By anon128373 — On Nov 19, 2010

My mother started out with breast cancer and within a year it spread to the bone and now it has moved to the brain in two places. Surgery is not an option and neither is chemo but 10 days of radiation is. What is going on. How much longer will I have my mom?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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