What is metastatic brain cancer?

Metastatic brain cancer is a type of brain tumor made of cancer cells that have spread from a tumor somewhere else in the body. It is the most common kind of brain tumor in adults.

Common related conditions
Brain Cancer

Causes of metastatic brain cancer

The most common types of tumor that spread to the brain are:

  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Colon cancer

Risk factors of metastatic brain cancer

Primary cancer

All people with metastatic brain cancer have another tumor somewhere else in their body. About 80% of people who have metastatic brain cancer already know they have another cancer. Some people learn they have another cancer after they find out about the brain tumor.


Metastatic brain cancer is most common in people older than 65, but it can occur at any age. There is a slight increase in the disease in people age 45-64.


A person's gender does not seem to play a role in the development of metastatic brain cancer. However, men who have skin cancer are more likely to develop metastatic brain cancer than women who have skin cancer.

Symptoms of metastatic brain cancer

The symptoms are different in each person. Many of the symptoms come from the tumor taking up space in the head.


Headaches happen in 40-50% of patients with metastatic brain cancer. They usually feel like tension pain in the forehead and neck. Sometimes, they happen with vomiting and get worse with bending forward. Headaches that occur just after waking up in the morning may be a sign of metastatic brain cancer.


A seizure is a short episode of electrical activity in the brain. This can alter normal function in the brain and can lead to shaking. Seizures can happen in 10-20% of people with this type of brain cancer.

Cognitive changes

This type of brain cancer sometimes affects the way people think. This can include memory problems or changes in personality or behavior. Around 30-35% of patients with metastatic brain cancer develop cognitive problems as the first symptom of the disease.

Physical discomfort

Depending on where a growing tumor is, it may affect certain functions of the brain. The symptoms may be weakness, numbness, pain or tingling in a certain body part. It may also appear as trouble with walking or balance.

Diagnosis of metastatic brain cancer

Health care providers have to confirm that metastatic brain cancer is the problem, and not some other condition. They use these tools:


A brain scan (MRI or CT scan) can be useful in finding tumors. These scans can help figure out the size, number and location of tumors. Providers may run a dye through your blood stream to help view the tumor(s). A whole-body PET scan can be useful to find a primary cancer if you don’t have a prior diagnosis of cancer.


When the diagnosis of metastatic brain cancer is unclear, your provider may want to obtain a sample of the tumor and examine it under a microscope to make a definite diagnosis. Biopsy involves a surgical procedure to obtain some tissue from the tumor.

Treatment of metastatic brain cancer

Treatment usually involves meeting with a neurosurgeon, a radiation oncologist and/or a medical oncologist. These doctors specialize in treatment of brain cancer. Treatment will be different from person to person, but can involve surgery, radiation or medication. Treatment will also include management of symptoms such as headache and seizures.

Recovery from metastatic brain cancer

Once your treatment is complete, it can take several months for results to show up on scans. Your provider will perform brain scans several times in the first year after treatment, and then as often as it is appropriate for you.

The chance of a metastatic brain tumor recurring depends on the primary cancer, the number and size of the tumor(s) and whether there were other areas to which the cancer spread. If your tumor recurs, your doctors will plan a new treatment plan for you.

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