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Treating secondary brain tumours

Men and women discussing brain tumours

This page tells you about treating secondary brain tumours, which are also called brain metastases. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Treating secondary brain tumours

Secondary brain tumours are cancers that have spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body. They can be treated with radiotherapy, steroids, surgery or chemotherapy. The tumours can cause symptoms such as tiredness, pain and loss of appetite. You may have medicines to control these symptoms. 

Radiotherapy is the most common treatment for secondary brain tumours. You will probably have radiotherapy over 1 or 2 weeks. The radiotherapy may be to the whole of the brain or may be very precisely targeted at the area of the tumour. 

Steroids are powerful anti inflammatory medicines that help to stop swelling. They can reduce swelling and symptoms caused by a brain tumour.

Surgery is sometimes used to remove secondary brain tumours. But often the tumours are too widely spread in the brain for this to be possible. Your specialist may suggest radiotherapy after surgery. This aims to kill any remaining cancer cells and to try and stop any other secondary brain tumours from starting to grow.

Chemotherapy may be recommended, depending on the type of cancer you have. It works well for some types of secondary brain tumour.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating brain tumours section.

 

 

What secondary brain tumours are

Secondary brain tumours are cancers that have spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body. In the secondary cancer section we have detailed information about secondary brain tumours, the symptoms they cause, and tests to diagnose them.  

Your doctor can usually tell that a brain tumour is a secondary cancer from looking at brain scans and knowing that you have had cancer before. Secondary brain tumours usually look quite different to primary brain tumours on a scan. They are usually rounder and less likely to grow into the surrounding brain tissue. But sometimes, to be certain, your doctor may need to do a biopsy and look at the tumour cells under a microscope. 

Secondary brain tumours can be treated with

 

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy is the most commonly used treatment for secondary brain tumours. The amount of radiotherapy you have will depend on the size of the area of your brain affected by cancer and how well you are. The specialist may suggest treating your whole brain if there is a risk that other secondary tumours will develop in the future. For whole brain radiotherapy, you usually have conventional external beam radiotherapy over 1 or 2 weeks. 

Your doctor may recommend targeted radiotherapy (stereotactic radiotherapy or radiosurgery) if you have only 1 or 2 or 3 small secondary brain tumours.

There is detailed information about radiotherapy for brain tumours in this section of the website.

 

Steroids

Steroids are powerful anti inflammatory medicines that can help to stop swelling. They can reduce the swelling and symptoms caused by a brain tumour. When your secondary brain tumour is first diagnosed, you are likely to have steroids to reduce swelling. After treatment, your specialist will slowly reduce your steroid dose. Steroids can also help to keep symptoms under control if you are not well enough to have other treatments.

There is information about steroids in the cancer drugs section and in the steroids for brain tumours section.

 

Surgery

It is sometimes possible to remove secondary brain tumours with surgery. This is most likely to be done if you have a single secondary brain tumour. It is occasionally used for people with 2 secondary tumours. But secondary cancers are often too widely spread within the brain for surgery to be possible.

The procedure for removing a secondary tumour is much the same as that for removing a primary tumour. So if your doctor has recommended surgery for you, the information about brain tumour surgery in this section of the website should be helpful. 

Your specialist may suggest radiotherapy to the whole area of the brain after the surgery. They may do this if some of the tumour could not be removed. Or they may use it to reduce the risk of other tumours developing.

 

Chemotherapy

Depending on the type of secondary brain cancer you have, your specialist may suggest chemotherapy. For chemotherapy to work well, the primary cancer needs to be a type that responds well to chemotherapy treatment. 

The drugs also need to get past a protective barrier called the blood brain barrier that usually stops drugs from entering the brain. With secondary tumours this barrier is often damaged. If the barrier is damaged, the brain secondaries glow brightly during a scan that uses a drug called contrast injected into a vein. If the brain secondaries glow (light up) during the scan this means that chemotherapy can reach the secondary cancer cells.

There is detailed information about having chemotherapy and the drugs used in the chemotherapy for brain tumours section.

 

More information about secondary brain tumours

If you would like more information about secondary brain tumours, look at our secondary brain tumour page. You can also find information in the treatment section for your type of primary cancer.

You are also welcome to contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. Lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. 

You can contact one of the brain tumour organisations or look at our brain tumour reading list. If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use CancerChat, our online forum.

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Updated: 17 December 2013