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What is secondary brain cancer?

Secondary brain cancer is when a cancer that started somewhere else in the body has spread to the brain.

Where a cancer starts is called the primary cancer. If some cancer cells break away from the primary cancer they can move through the bloodstream or lymphatic system Open a glossary item to another part of the body, where they can form a new tumour. This is called a secondary cancer. Secondary cancers are also called metastases (pronounced met-ass-ta-sees).

Diagram showing secondary liver cancer

The secondary cancer is made of the same type of cells as the primary cancer.

So, if your cancer started in your lung and has spread to your brain, the areas of cancer in the brain are made up of lung cancer cells.

This is different from having a cancer that first started in the brain (a primary brain cancer). In that case, the cancer is made up of brain cells that have become cancerous. This is important because the primary cancer tells your doctor which type of treatment you need.

Which cancers spread to the brain

Any cancer can spread to the brain. The most common cancers that do are:

  • lung cancer
  • breast cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • melanoma skin cancer
  • bowel cancer (colorectal cancer)

Symptoms of secondary brain cancer

Symptoms depend on where the cancer is in your brain. The cancer can cause pressure on the surrounding brain tissue and the symptoms will depend on what this part of the brain does.

Symptoms can include:

  • headaches
  • feeling or being sick
  • weakness of a part of the body
  • seizures (fits)
  • personality or mood changes
  • changes to your eyesight such as loss of sight (vision)
  • confusion and difficulty understanding
  • difficulty speaking
Remember other conditions can cause these symptoms. They don't necessarily mean that you have cancer that has spread to the brain. But if you have any of these symptoms, tell your doctor or nurse so that they can check it out.

Tests

You may have one or more of the following tests:

  • physical examination by a doctor to test your muscle strength, eyes and reaction times
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • biopsy (removing some or all of the tumour to see if it is cancer)

You may not need to have a biopsy as your medical history and test results can usually give a clear idea about whether you have a secondary cancer. 

Treatment

Secondary cancer can’t usually be cured. But treatment can control it for some time and help prevent problems developing. Some people may not be able to have treatment for their cancer because they are too unwell. 

Survival

Most people worry about their outlook (prognosis) when they have a secondary cancer. Your individual outlook depends on many factors including whether the cancer has spread to more than one part of your body, how quickly it is growing and how it responds to treatment. 

It is usually difficult to predict and this uncertainty can be hard to deal with. Speak to your doctor who can give you more information about your outlook.