Hand in hand with more cancer survivors living longer, there has been an increase in the number of cancer patients diagnosed with metastatic brain tumors. These are also referred to as secondary brain tumors because they begin as cancer elsewhere in the body and then spread to the brain.

Differences in cells

For example, cancer cells in the lung, breast, skin, kidney or colon can move into the brain through the bloodstream. This process results in a single tumor in about 10-20 percent of patients, and multiple brain tumors in about 80 percent of patients.

Metastatic brain tumors are the most common brain tumor in adults, with an estimated 100,000-170,000 people affected each year. The incidence of metastatic brain tumors goes up in people between the ages of 45-64 years and is the highest in people over age 65.

"Neurological function and the status of the primary cancer site appear to have more influence over survival than the number of brain metastases."

Metastatic brain tumors are usually found when a cancer patient begins to experience neurological symptoms, such as headache and seizures and a brain scan (CT or MRI) is ordered. In most cases, the metastatic brain tumor contains the same type of cancer cells found at the primary cancer site. For instance, small-cell lung cancer metastasis to the brain forms small-cell cancer in the brain.

The right treatment

Treatment for metastatic brain tumors often begins with a consultation with a neurosurgeon and/or radiation oncologist who will look at the individual’s scans to determine if the tumors can be surgically removed, or if other treatments are more optimal. Early treatment usually focuses on controlling symptoms, such as swelling of the brain or seizures. In addition to surgery, treatments may include radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of therapies and can vary depending on the number of tumors.

Neurological function and the status of the primary cancer site appear to have more influence over survival than the number of brain metastases. When evaluating treatment options, patients and caregivers should consider not only long-term survival, but also quality of life including cognitive concerns during and after treatment.