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About carcinomatous meningitis

Carcinomatous meningitis is when cancer cells spread to one of the membranes that surround the brain.

What carcinoma meningitis is

Carcinomatous meningitis means there is inflammation of the covering of the brain, caused by cancer. 

It is an uncommon condition caused by cancer cells getting into the thin layers of body tissue that surround and protect the brain and spine. These layers are called the meninges. Meningitis means inflammation of the meninges.

It is also sometimes called leptomeningeal metastases, which just means that cancer has spread to these layers of body tissue covering the brain.

What causes it

Cancer cells can reach the meninges by travelling in the bloodstream from a cancer somewhere else in the body. Or they might spread from a secondary cancer that has already developed in the brain.

A secondary cancer happens when cancer cells break away from the primary cancer and spread to another organ or part of the body. A secondary cancer is also called a metastases.

How common it is

Carcinomatous meningitis can happen in some types of blood cancer (leukaemia or lymphoma) as well as solid tumour cancers such as melanoma skin cancer, lung cancer and breast cancer.

About 5 out of every 100 people who have a solid tumour (5%) develop carcinomatous meningitis. It is more common in people with leukaemia or lymphoma.

The number of people with this condition has gone up in recent years. Experts think this is because people are living longer due to better treatments for their primary cancer.

You could talk to your cancer specialist or specialist nurse if you are worried about this.

Symptoms

The cancer cells in the covering of the brain can cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • confusion
  • headaches
  • weakness

Diagnosis

It can be difficult to diagnose carcinomatous meningitis. It might show up on an MRI scan, or cancer cells might be found in fluid taken from the spine by a lumbar puncture. 

A lumbar puncture is a test to check the fluid that circulates round the brain and spinal cord. The lumbar puncture needle goes through the skin.into the small of your back and into the space around the spinal cord. 

Treatment

Last reviewed: 
12 Aug 2014
  • Cancer and its management (6th edition)
    J Tobias and R Hochhauser
    Wiley Blackwell, 2010

  • New Strategies in the Management of Leptomeningeal Metastases. Neurological Review
    D.Morris D and MD. Groves
    Arch Neurol. 2010, March;67(3):305-312

Information and help

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