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What is a metastatic brain tumor?

A metastatic brain tumor is a cancer that started in another part of the body and has spread to the brain.


What causes a metastatic brain tumor?

Many tumor or cancer types can spread to the brain. The most common are:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Germ cell tumors 
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Melanoma

There are some cancers that seldom spread to the brain such as colon cancer and prostate cancer, but in rare cases, a tumor can spread to the brain from an unknown location.


What are the symptoms of a metastatic brain tumor?

Symptoms include:

  • Decreased coordination
  • Fever
  • General ill feeling or fatigue
  • Headache
  • Memory loss, poor judgment, difficulty solving problems
  • Numbness, tingling, pain, and other changes in sensation
  • Personality changes
  • Rapid emotional change or strange behaviors
  • Seizures that are new
  • Problems with speech
  • Vision changes, double vision, decreased vision
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness of a body area


How is a metastatic brain tumor diagnosed?

Your physician will review your health history and do a physical exam, checking your nervous system. This includes checking your reflexes and the power and feeling in your arms and legs and asking questions to test your reasoning and memory. Some metastatic brain tumors may not show signs until they are very large which can cause a fast decline in nervous system function. Your physician may also order an MRI or CT scan to confirm the diagnosis and identify the tumor location. In addition, your physician may want to remove a sample of the tumor to examine it under a microscope before making the diagnosis.


What are metastatic brain tumors treated?

Treatment for a metastatic brain tumor depends on the size and type of tumor, where in the body it has spread, and your overall health. The goals of the treatment may be to relieve symptoms, improve functioning, or provide comfort. Treatments include:

  • Radiation; this can be used to reduce the size and limit the growth of the tumor. Radiation to the whole brain is often used to treat tumors that have spread to the brain, especially if there are multiple tumors.
  • Surgery; this may be performed when there is a single tumor and the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body. Some tumors are able to be completely removed, and tumors that are deep or that extend into brain tissue may be reduced in size. Surgery may reduce pressure and relieve symptoms in cases when the tumor cannot be removed.
  • Chemotherapy; this is usually not as helpful for metastatic brain tumors as surgery or radiation , however, some types of tumors respond to chemotherapy.
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery; this form of radiation therapy focuses high-power x-rays on a small area of the brain when there are only a few tumors.
  • Palliative Care; this is used when the cancer has spread focusing on relieving pain and other symptoms.