What Is Brain Metastases?

Brain metastases are tumors that have spread to the brain from a primary cancer located elsewhere in the body — most often, from the lung, breast, colon/gastrointestinal tract, skin (melanoma), or kidney, although almost any cancer can spread to the brain. Brain metastases are now more widely recognized as more cancer treatments, particularly with immunotherapy, are available and improved responses are being observed.

Symptoms of brain metastases

Brain metastases symptoms are a result of the pressure the tumor is putting on the brain. Though not all patients will experience symptoms, the possibilities include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Vision difficulties
  • Weakness, difficulty moving and/or paralysis
  • Cognitive impairment (speech, focus, memory)
  • Fatigue

Causes of brain metastases

Brain metastases originate at another cancer site within the body, then spread by the bloodstream or lymphatics system. Most brain metastases stem from lung cancer, but other possible origin sites include the breast, melanoma (skin), renal (kidney) and GI (gastrointestinal tumors like colon cancer). Treatment options will depend on the origin of cancer, as different tissue cells will respond better to some therapies over others, but the treatment of brain metastases will require some form of radiation with or without surgery.

Diagnosis of Brain Metastases

To confirm brain metastases diagnosis, a doctor may order diagnostic imaging to visualize the tumor. Primarily, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used, but in some cases, a doctor may collect computed tomography (CT), or positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Surgical biopsy or surgical resection is sometimes necessary to determine the tumor’s origin, which can influence the treatment path.

Treatment at Penn

Treatment options will depend on the origin of cancer, as different tissue cells will respond better to some therapies over others, but the treatment of brain metastases typically requires some form of radiation with or without surgery. At Penn, we have a combination of radiation strategies used for brain metastases, including CyberKnife and gamma knife, which are both precise forms of stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS). These techniques represent an advance in that only the tumors are treated and not the surrounding brain tissue. Importantly, multiple tumors can be treated with stereotactic radiosurgery during a single treatment session.

Learn more about treatment plans for brain metastases tumors at the Penn Brain Tumor Center, the Abramson Cancer Center and the Penn Gamma Knife Center

Penn Programs & Services for Brain Metastases

Brain Tumor Center-Dr. Steven Brem Looking at Brain Tumor Scans
Brain Tumor Center

The Penn Brain Tumor Center represents the forefront of the field of neuro-oncology, where new research discoveries are rapidly translated to innovative care and better treatment options for patients.

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