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Neurologic Complications of Cancer

What are Neurologic Complications of Cancer?

The brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system can be impacted both by the spread of cancer from other parts of the body and by treatments for cancer occurring elsewhere in the body.

There are two types of neurological complications of cancer:

  • Direct neurological complications – cancers that directly affect or metastasize to the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system
  • Indirect neurological complications – conditions caused by cancer or by cancer treatments

Direct neurological complications of cancer include:

  • Lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, and other cancers that spread or metastasize to the brain
  • Cancers that spread or metastasize to the spine or peripheral nervous system
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma affecting the central nervous system
  • Leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphoma affecting the central or peripheral nervous system

Indirect neurological complications of cancer and cancer treatments include:

  • Paraneoplastic neurological syndromes, which occur when cancer-fighting agents of the immune system also attack parts of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, or muscle. This can cause problems with muscle movement or coordination, sensory perception, memory, and thinking skills.
  • Ischemic stroke, which can be caused multiple factors, including:
    • Cancer and its treatment causing blood clotting disorders
    • Cancer that directly affects blood vessels
    • Cancer causing infections that result in secondary stroke
  • Bleeding in the brain caused by certain cancerous tumorsRadiation-induced injury to the brain, spine, and peripheral nerves
  • Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy—a result of damage to the peripheral nerves that causes weakness, numbness, and pain in the hands and feet
  • Nervous system infections caused by the effect of cancer treatment on the immune system

In the most severe cases, cancer can cause conditions such as:

  • Spinal cord compression
  • Fracture of vertebrae affected by cancer
  • Complications caused by increased pressure in the brain
  • Uncontrolled seizures

Neurologic Complications of Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of neurological complications of cancer can include:

  • Memory problems
  • Headache
  • Poor concentration
  • Slow thinking
  • Difficulty finding words
  • Speech problems
  • Weakness or numbness, especially in the hands or feet
  • Balance and coordination problems
  • Seizures
  • Visual problems
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Depression
  • Seizures

Neurologic Complications of Cancer Treatments

Neurological complications of cancer cause changes in both cognitive and physical functions. These changes can be upsetting, frustrating, and frightening to patients and their family members. Multiple forms of treatment may be needed to provide the most relief of symptoms.

These treatments can include, but are not limited to:

  • Surgery
  • Psychotherapy
  • Lifestyle alterations
  • Nutritional, physical, and emotional support

Additional Information

How common are neurological complications of cancer?

Approximately 15 to 20 percent of cancer patients have neurological complications during their illness.

Who gets neurological complications of cancer?

Neurological complications of cancer can occur in anyone treated for cancer.

How are neurological complications of cancer diagnosed?

The following may be used to diagnose neurological complications of cancer:

  • Lumbar puncture
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans
  • Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans

Information and Resources

American Family Physician: Neurologic Complications of Systemic Cancer
Seminars in Oncology: Neurologic Complications of Cancer Chemotherapy
US National Library of Medicine: Brain MRI Findings in Neurological Complications of Cancer Treatment 
US National Library of Medicine: Neurologic Complications of Cancer and its Treatment
US National Library of Medicine: Paraneoplastic Neurologic Syndrome  

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Approximately 15 to 20 percent of cancer patients have neurological complications during their illness.