Brain metastases are malignant tumours (abnormal mass of tissue) that initiate as cancer elsewhere in the body and spread (metastasize) to the brain. These tumours are a commonly feared complication of cancers of the lung, breast, skin, thyroid, colon, and kidney. Metastatic brain tumours occur much more frequently than primary brain tumours.
Symptoms of brain metastases depend on the size and location of the tumours. In some people the symptoms develop over time, and therefore, may not be evident in the initial stages of the disease. Most symptoms are related to the nervous system and include headache, nausea, cognitive (relating to intellectual activities such as thinking, understanding or remembering) and motor (relating to movement) dysfunctions, and seizures.
Diagnosis involves physical examination and review of past medical records. If your doctor suspects metastases, they may order imaging tests to obtain a clear picture of the brain for diagnosis. In rare cases, a biopsy (removal of a small sample of the tumour for microscopic examination) may also be recommended.
Treatment strategy for metastatic brain tumours is determined based on factors such as size and location of the tumour, the overall health of the patient, and the initial location of the tumour. The aim of the treatment is two-fold:
- Limit further metastases
- Bring respite from the symptoms
Treatment approaches include drugs, surgery, and radiation. Some of the common side effects associated with drugs and radiation therapy include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and hair loss. Surgery is associated with potential side effects such as swelling or bleeding of tissues at the site of surgery.