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Brain Metastases

Brain Metastases Overview

Brain metastases, also known as secondary brain tumors or metastatic brain tumors, are cancerous tumors that spread to the brain from elsewhere in the body. Tumors that originate in the brain are known as primary brain tumors.

A metastatic brain tumor usually contains the same type of cancer cells found at the primary cancer site. Many different cancers can spread to the brain through the bloodstream, but the following are the most likely to cause brain metastases:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Melanoma

Brain Metastases Symptoms

Symptoms of brain metastases vary depending on the number, size, and location of the tumors, but they may include:

  • Headache
  • Hearing problems 
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Memory problems
  • Mood changes
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Seizures 
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Vision problems

Brain Metastases Treatments

The main treatments for brain metastases are surgery and radiation therapy. Stereotactic radiosurgery, chemotherapy, and targeted drug therapy may also be used and are all offered by the Barrow Brain Tumor & Oncology Program.

Additionally, your neuro-oncologist may prescribe medications to alleviate certain symptoms. This may include anti-seizure drugs to prevent additional seizures or steroids to reduce swelling in the brain caused by the tumor. 

Neuro-Rehabilitation for Brain Metastases

During and after treatment for a brain metastasis, neuro-rehabilitation may help you regain function and independence. Rehabilitation does not reverse brain damage, but it can help you achieve the best possible long-term outcome.

Each patient’s rehabilitation journey is unique, but it may include:

  • Physical therapy to help you regain lost muscle strength and motor skills
  • Occupational therapy to help you return to everyday activities at home in and in the community
  • Speech therapy to help you with speech difficulties
  • Recreation therapy to enhance your overall quality of life 

Individualized Care

There is no single recipe or “cookbook” approach that works best for everyone with a brain tumor. Every brain tumor is unique, as is each patient. Personalized medicine approaches, such as tumor profiling to look for specific gene mutations, can help determine the best therapies available to you. 

Quality of Life Considerations

Brain tumor treatment should be about more than extending life; it should also be focused on optimizing quality of life. Access to a variety of neuro-rehabilitation specialists is important because they can help you maximize your independence and return to a fulfilling life with renewed self-esteem.

At Barrow, we offer a Brain Cancer Survivorship Program to foster relationships between families who have been affected by brain tumors and provide ongoing support.

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Common Questions about Brain Metastases

How common are brain metastases?

It is estimated that between 30 and 70 percent of people with cancer develop a spine metastasis. Extradural tumors are the most common type of spinal tumors, and intramedullary tumors are the least common.

What causes brain metastases?

Metastatic spine cancer occurs when cancer spreads to the spine from another part of the body. Cancer is caused by mutations to the DNA within cells. There are many possible risk factors for cancer, including lifestyle factors and family history.

Who gets brain metastases?

Metastatic spine cancer can affect anyone. The following cancers are the most likely to spread to the spine:

  • Breast
  • Lung
  • Prostate

Other cancers that can spread to the spine include:

  • Gastrointestinal cancers
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Sarcoma
  • Thyroid cancer

How are brain metastases diagnosed?

Your doctor may use any of the following to diagnose metastatic spine cancer:

  • Medical history
  • Physical examination to check vital signs
  • Neurological examination to evaluate pain and function
  • Imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), or X-ray to look for tumors and problems with the bones of the spine
  • Biopsy to evaluate tumor tissue under a microscope

Information and Resources for Brain Metastases

American Cancer Society – Brain Metastases

American Association of Neurological Surgeons – Metastatic Brain Tumors

Group 49
Between 200,000 and 300,000 people each year will be diagnosed with a tumor that has metastasized to the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves.


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Medically Reviewed by Igor Barani, MD on August 22, 2022