Overview

Brain metastases occur when cancer cells spread from their original site to the brain. Any cancer can spread to the brain, but the types most likely to cause brain metastases are lung, breast, colon, kidney and melanoma.

Brain metastases, or secondary brain tumors, occur in 10 to 30 percent of adults with cancer. As the metastatic brain tumors grow, they create pressure on and change the function of surrounding brain tissue. Brain metastases can cause many signs and symptoms.

Treatment for people whose cancer has spread to the brain is often surgery, radiation therapy or both. In some cases, chemotherapy and immunotherapy are helpful. Treatment is often focused on reducing pain and symptoms resulting from the cancer.

Brain metastases care at Mayo Clinic

Symptoms

Brain tumor symptoms vary depending on the tumors' size, number, location and rate of growth.

Signs and symptoms of brain metastases include:

  • Headache, sometimes with vomiting or nausea
  • Mental changes, such as increasing memory problems
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have persistent signs and symptoms that concern you. If you've been treated for cancer in the past, tell your doctor about your medical history.

Causes

Brain metastases occur when cancer cells travel through the bloodstream or the lymph system from the original tumor and spread (metastasize) to the brain. There they begin to multiply. Metastatic cancer that spreads from its original location is known by the name of the primary cancer. For example, cancer that has spread from the breast to the brain is called metastatic breast cancer, not brain cancer.

There are many theories about what causes some cancers to spread and why some cancers travel to the brain. Brain metastases from lung cancer are often found early in the course of the disease, and those from breast cancer develop late.

Risk factors

Any type of cancer can spread to the brain, but having one of the following types of cancer puts you at increased risk of brain metastases:

  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Melanoma