Metastatic Brain Tumor

What Is It?

A metastatic brain tumor is a cancerous tumor which originates in another organ or tissue and then spreads by way of the blood stream to the brain (it metastasizes). Therefore, it is not a primary brain tumor which started growing in the brain. Of all the tumors that can occur in the brain, a metastatic tumor is by far the most common. Primary brain tumors that originate in the brain itself are far less common.

Malignant tumors from anywhere in the body have some propensity to spread outside of their site of origin, either via blood vessels or lymphatic vessels. While many different types of tumor can metastasize to the brain, some of the most common include lung cancer, breast cancer, melanoma (malignant tumor of the skin), kidney cancer and bladder cancer, followed by some sarcomas, testicular and germ cell tumors and others. Some common cancers are very rare to spread to the brain, such as colon cancer or prostate cancer.

Metastatic brain tumors can be solitary (only one visible tumor) or multiple. In severe cases, literally hundreds of small tumors can occur in the brain in a patient with widely metastatic disease.

What Types of Symptoms Are Typical?

When a metastatic brain tumor begins growing in the brain, it can cause injury to the brain in that area, either by destroying cells, causing inflammation or causing pressure on normal brain tissue. In addition to any symptoms associated with the primary tumor in other organs, this nervous system injury and inflammation can lead to neurological symptoms. Initially, when the tumor is small, it may be asymptomatic. If symptoms do occur, these symptoms depend on many factors, including the size and location of the tumor. Some common symptoms include new onset of seizures, headache, nausea and vomiting, personality changes, memory loss, visual changes, speech difficulty, weakness of a part of the body or impaired coordination and balance, to name just a few. Every patient is different.

How Is The Diagnosis Typically Made?

Metastatic brain tumors are sometimes diagnosed in a patient with a known cancer elsewhere upon further work-up but can also be the first sign of disease in a patient who is not aware they have a tumor elsewhere. In the former case, the brain tumor can sometimes be found on a metastatic work-up, meaning that they received a CT scan or MRI scan to actively look for evidence of spread of their primary tumor. These patients may be asymtpomatic. Alternately, these patients may begin having neurological symptoms which prompt a work-up for a metastatic brain tumor.

In the later case, a patient without a known primary tumor may first present with neurological symptoms. When the diagnosis of the metastatic tumor is made, a work-up to find the primary tumor usually follows.

As with any tumor, to make a definitive diagnosis and to distinguish a metastatic tumor from a primary brain tumor, tumor tissue is needed to be evaluated by a pathologist.

What Are Some Common Treatments?

Treatment of metastatic varies dramatically depending on patient and tumor characteristics. Treatment will depend on the type of tumor, how many metastases are present and what the state of the primary tumor elsewhere in the body is. In general, patients in good condition who have only a solitary tumor may be offered surgery to remove the brain tumor. Alternatively, or as an adjunct, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy may be offered. Again, these treatment decisions depend heavily on the specifics of each case and should be discussed with the specific patient's physicians.

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Important Note: This site is not intended to offer medical advice. Every patient is different, and only your personal physician can help to counsel you about what is best for your situation. What we offer is general reference information about various disorders and treatments for your education.

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