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  • Tumors Metastatic to the Nervous System

    A tumor that is metastatic to the nervous system is a tumor that began in another part of the body and then migrated to the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nervous system.

    Because of improvements in cancer treatments, people are now surviving cancer longer than ever before. However, the primary cancer can continue to exist in the patient. With time, this cancer may recur in the nervous system as a metastatic tumor.

    The metastatic tumor usually contains the same type of cancer cells found at the primary cancer site. Many different cancers can metastasize to the nervous system, but breast, lung, and skin cancers are the most common.

    Additional Information

    How common are tumors metastatic to the nervous system

    It is estimated that 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.

    Who gets tumors metastatic to the nervous system?

    The occurrence of tumors metastatic to the nervous system increases in adults age 45-64. It is highest in adults age 65 or older. Central nervous system metastasis is less common in children, accounting for just six percent of childhood nervous system tumors.

    How are tumors metastatic to the nervous system diagnosed?

    Your doctor will first perform a neurological exam and request either computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect tumors in the brain, spine, or peripheral system. These images can help your doctor understand the size and number of tumors, the exact location of the tumors, and their potential impact on nearby structures in your brain or body.

    Next, your doctor may perform a biopsy, which involves collecting and examining tissue from the tumor to determine the type of cancer and whether it is benign or malignant..

    Surgery to remove a brain tumor may be difficult depending on where the tumor is located. Your doctor may instead use a stereotactic needle biopsy to obtain tumor tissue from parts of the brain that are sensitive or hard to reach.

    If the tumor was discovered before the primary cancer was found, your doctor may order additional tests to determine where the cancer originated.

    Symptoms of Tumors Metastatic to the Nervous System

    Depending on the location of the tumor in the nervous system, symptoms may include:

    • Balance and gait problems
    • Confusion
    • Headaches
    • Intolerance of bright light
    • Involuntary movements
    • Loss of intellectual functions such as thinking, remembering, and reasoning
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Neck stiffness
    • Personality or behavior problems
    • Seizures
    • Speech difficulties

    Treatments for Tumors Metastatic to the Nervous System

    The primary treatments for tumors metastatic to the nervous system are surgery and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy, targeted drug therapy, and stereotactic radiosurgery may also be used.

    Neuro-Rehabilitation for Tumors Metastatic to the Nervous System

    During and after treatment for tumors metastatic to the nervous system, neuro-rehabilitation may help you regain function and independence. Rehabilitation does not reverse brain damage, however, it can help you achieve the best possible long-term outcome.

    Rehabilitation can last from one month to more than two years and involves numerous physicians, nurses, and therapists. Learn more about Brain Tumor Rehabilitation at Barrow.

    Information and Resources

    American Brain Tumor Association


    National Institutes of Health | Oncology Letters

    Journal of the Society of Oncology

    Get a Neurosurgical Second Opinion; Fast. Easy. Secure

    • Date of last review: January 7, 2020

    About Barrow Neurological Institute
    Since our doors opened as a regional specialty center in 1962, we have grown into one of the premier destinations in the world for neurology and neurosurgery. Our experienced, highly skilled, and comprehensive team of neurological specialists can provide you with a complete spectrum of care–from diagnosis through outpatient neurorehabilitation–under one roof. Barrow Neurological Institute: Discover. Educate. Heal.