What is metastatic brain cancer?

April 07, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Metastatic cancer occurs when cancer spreads from its original location to another organ in the body.

Cancer cells can break away from a tumor and travel to other parts of the body through the blood stream or lymphatic system. Often, the cells that break away from the tumor die before taking root in a new organ. However, some settle in a new area and begin to grow.

In the case of metastatic brain cancer — or cancer that started elsewhere and spread to the brain — it most often began as lung, breast, melanoma (skin cancer), colon or kidney cancer.

Although it spread to the brain, the metastatic tumor usually has the same type of cancer cells found in its primary site. For example, small-cell lung cancer that spreads to the brain also forms as a small-cell cancer.

Metastatic brain cancer is the most common brain tumor found in adults. It is estimated that metastatic brain tumors affect 200,000 to 300,000 people per year, according to the American Brain Tumor Association. More than 80 percent of those metastatic brain tumors present as multiple tumors within the brain, and about 10 to 20 percent of metastatic brain tumors present as a single tumor.

Some of the symptoms of a metastatic brain tumor include:

  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Changes in cognitive abilities

If you have consistent symptoms that concern you, you should make an appointment with your physician and discuss any history of cancer.

A brain scan may be part of the initial screening. Your doctor may use an MRI or CT scan to get a better understanding of what is causing the symptoms. Other tests, such as a PET scan, may also help your physician in identifying fast-growing or high-grade tumors. The scans will help your physician learn the size and location of the tumors, the number of tumors within the brain or spine and the impact of those tumors.

Those with lung, breast, colon, kidney or skin cancers can be at higher risk for a metastatic brain tumor. Lung cancer is the most common type of brain metastases. Breast cancer is the second most common type of brain metastases in women, while melanoma (a form of skin cancer) is the second most common for men.

Often the cancer metastasizes to the brain years after the original cancer. However, in lung cancer the brain tumor is often found before, or even at the same time, as the primary lung tumor.

Your doctor will help determine the best course of action to treat metastatic brain cancer. Treatment may include medication, surgery and/or radiation therapy.

Cancer is a journey no one expects to take. We’re with you every step of the way. Learn more about cancer care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Learn more about Edward-Elmhurst Health’s cancer care from Healthy Driven Chicago.

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