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 forming a new tumour. This is called a secondary cancer. Secondary cancers are also called metastases (pronounced me-tass-ta-sis).

Diagram showing how cancer cells get into the blood stream and are able to spread to other parts of the body

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.

This video is about secondary cancer, it lasts for 2 minutes and 42 seconds.

Which cancers spread to the brain?

Any cancer can spread to the brain. Some of the 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 blurred vision or loss of 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.


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. 


Secondary brain 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. 


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.

  • Brain tumours (primary) and brain metastases in adults
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), January 2021

  • Advanced breast cancer: diagnosis and treatment
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), August 2017

  • Lung cancer: diagnosis and management
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), July 2023

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (12th edition)
    VT DeVita, TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Wolters Kluwer, 2023

  • Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis of brain metastases

    H Shih and others

    UpToDate website

    Accessed August 2023

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Last reviewed: 
29 Aug 2023
Next review due: 
29 Aug 2026

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