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Adult Brain Tumors Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI] - General Information About Adult Brain Tumors


The most common primary cancers metastasizing to the brain are lung cancer (50%), breast cancer (15%–20%), unknown primary cancer (10%–15%), melanoma (10%), and colon cancer (5%).[2,16] Eighty percent of brain metastases occur in the cerebral hemispheres, 15% occur in the cerebellum, and 5% occur in the brain stem.[2] Metastases to the brain are multiple in more than 70% of cases, but solitary metastases also occur.[16] Brain involvement can occur with cancers of the nasopharyngeal region by direct extension along the cranial nerves or through the foramina at the base of the skull. Dural metastases may constitute as much as 9% of total CNS metastases.

A lesion in the brain should not be assumed to be a metastasis just because a patient has had a previous cancer; such an assumption could result in overlooking appropriate treatment of a curable tumor. Primary brain tumors rarely spread to other areas of the body, but they can spread to other parts of the brain and to the spinal axis.

The diagnosis of brain metastases in cancer patients is based on the following:

  • Patient history.
  • Neurological examination.
  • Diagnostic procedures, including a contrast MRI of the brain.

Patients may describe any of the following:

  • Headaches.
  • Weakness.
  • Seizures.
  • Sensory defects.
  • Gait problems.

Often, family members or friends may notice the following:

  • Lethargy.
  • Emotional lability.
  • Personality change.

A physical examination may show objective neurological findings or only minor cognitive changes. The presence of multiple lesions and a high predilection of primary tumor metastasis may be sufficient to make the diagnosis of brain metastasis. In the case of a solitary lesion or a questionable relationship to the primary tumor, a brain biopsy (usually a stereotactic biopsy) may be necessary. CT scans with contrast or MRIs with gadolinium are quite sensitive in diagnosing the presence of metastases. PET scanning and spectroscopic evaluation are new strategies to diagnose cerebral metastases and to differentiate the metastases from other intracranial lesions.[17]

Related Summaries

Other PDQ summaries containing information related to adult and childhood brain cancer include the following:

  • Breast Cancer Treatment
  • Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview
  • Colon Cancer Treatment
  • Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment
  • Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment
  • Testicular Cancer Treatment


  1. American Cancer Society.: Cancer Facts and Figures 2013. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society, 2013. Available online. Last accessed September 5, 2013.
  2. Mehta M, Vogelbaum MA, Chang S, et al.: Neoplasms of the central nervous system. In: DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA: Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011, pp 1700-49.
  3. Altekruse SF, Kosary CL, Krapcho M, et al.: SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2007. Bethesda, Md: National Cancer Institute, 2010. Also available online. Last accessed September 23, 2013.
  4. Ferlay J, Shin HR, Bray F, et al.: GLOBOCAN 2008: Cancer Incidence and Mortality Worldwide in 2008. Lyon, France: IARC CancerBase No. 10. Available online. Last accessed May 23, 2013.
  5. Schabet M: Epidemiology of primary CNS lymphoma. J Neurooncol 43 (3): 199-201, 1999.
  6. Behin A, Hoang-Xuan K, Carpentier AF, et al.: Primary brain tumours in adults. Lancet 361 (9354): 323-31, 2003.
  7. Kleihues P, Cavenee WK, eds.: Pathology and Genetics of Tumours of the Nervous System. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2000.
  8. Hutter A, Schwetye KE, Bierhals AJ, et al.: Brain neoplasms: epidemiology, diagnosis, and prospects for cost-effective imaging. Neuroimaging Clin N Am 13 (2): 237-50, x-xi, 2003.
  9. Cloughesy T, Selch MT, Liau L: Brain. In: Haskell CM: Cancer Treatment. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders Co, 2001, pp 1106-42.
  10. Ricci PE: Imaging of adult brain tumors. Neuroimaging Clin N Am 9 (4): 651-69, 1999.
  11. Buckner JC: Factors influencing survival in high-grade gliomas. Semin Oncol 30 (6 Suppl 19): 10-4, 2003.
  12. DeAngelis LM: Brain tumors. N Engl J Med 344 (2): 114-23, 2001.
  13. Ueki K, Nishikawa R, Nakazato Y, et al.: Correlation of histology and molecular genetic analysis of 1p, 19q, 10q, TP53, EGFR, CDK4, and CDKN2A in 91 astrocytic and oligodendroglial tumors. Clin Cancer Res 8 (1): 196-201, 2002.
  14. Giordana MT, Ghimenti C, Leonardo E, et al.: Molecular genetic study of a metastatic oligodendroglioma. J Neurooncol 66 (3): 265-71, 2004.
  15. Hoang-Xuan K, Capelle L, Kujas M, et al.: Temozolomide as initial treatment for adults with low-grade oligodendrogliomas or oligoastrocytomas and correlation with chromosome 1p deletions. J Clin Oncol 22 (15): 3133-8, 2004.
  16. Patchell RA: The management of brain metastases. Cancer Treat Rev 29 (6): 533-40, 2003.
  17. Schaefer PW, Budzik RF Jr, Gonzalez RG: Imaging of cerebral metastases. Neurosurg Clin N Am 7 (3): 393-423, 1996.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: September 04, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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