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Treatment for secondary brain cancer

The aim of treatment is usually to control the cancer and your symptoms. It can also prevent problems developing.

Secondary cancer can’t usually be cured. But treatment can control it for some time and help to control symptoms. This is called palliative treatment. 

Deciding about treatment

Deciding about treatment can be difficult. You need to understand:

  • what treatment can do for you
  • any side effects of the treatment
  • how many visits to hospital the treatment involves

You can stop whenever you want to if you are finding it too much to cope with.

Talk through your options with your doctor or specialist nurse. You may find it helpful to talk things over with a close relative or friend, or a counsellor if one is available.

Your treatment will depend on a number of factors including:

  • your type of primary cancer
  • the treatment you have already had
  • how many tumours are in the brain
  • whether your cancer has spread to other parts of the body
  • your general health
  • your symptoms

Types of treatment

You are likely to have a combination of treatments. Some to control the cancer and others to control specific symptoms.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy treatment uses high energy waves usually x-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiotherapy can help to control cancer growth and symptoms. You usually have this as external radiotherapy. 

Your doctor might suggest treating your whole brain if there is a risk that other secondary tumours could develop in the future.

For whole brain radiotherapy, or for larger areas, you will usually have a course of external radiotherapy over 1 or 2 weeks.

Your doctor might recommend targeted radiotherapy called stereotactic treatment, if you have only 1 or 2 small secondary brain tumours.

Steroids

Steroids are anti-inflammatory drugs that reduce swelling.

You are likely to have these when your secondary brain cancer is first diagnosed. After treatment, your specialist will slowly reduce your steroid dose. Steroids can also help to keep symptoms under control.

Surgery

You may be offered surgery if you have a single secondary brain tumour and there are no other tumours elsewhere in your body. Surgery might not be possible if the tumours are widely spread within the brain. 

Your surgeon removes secondary brain tumours in the same way as they remove a primary brain tumour.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer drugs to kill cancer cells. The type of chemotherapy you'll have depends on your type of primary cancer. 

Hormone therapy

Some cancers including breast and prostate cancer depend on hormones to survive and grow. So lowering hormone levels in the body can help to control them.

Hormone treatment may be tablets or injections. Hormone treatment is a common treatment for advanced breast cancer and advanced prostate cancer.

Anti epileptic drugs

You might need to take anti-epileptic medicines to help prevent fits (seizures) if your doctor thinks that this could be a problem for you.

Research into secondary brain tumours

Research is going on all the time into improving treatments for secondary brain tumours and helping people to cope with symptoms. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer and also supports many UK and international clinical trials.

Last reviewed: 
12 Oct 2017
  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine
    N.Cherny and others
    5th edition (2015)

  • Cancer and its management
    Tobias and Hochhauser
    7th ed. (2015)

  • Improving Outcomes for people with Brain and Other CNS Tumours The Manual
    June 2006
    Developed by the National Collaborating Centre for Cancer

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