secondary brain cancer?

What is secondary brain cancer?

Secondary brain cancer is cancer that starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the brain. It may also be called brain metastases or secondary brain tumour. It is a type of advanced cancer.

Some types of primary cancer are more likely to spread to the brain. The primary cancer is where the cancer first started. These include:

Sometimes, secondary brain cancer is found before the primary cancer has been diagnosed. For a small number of people it is not possible to find the primary cancer. This is called secondary brain cancer from an unknown primary.

We also have other information about primary brain tumours.

Symptoms of secondary brain cancer

Secondary brain cancer can cause similar symptoms to primary brain tumours.

As a tumour grows, it can press on or grow into nearby areas of the brain. This can cause symptoms because it stops that part of the brain from working normally.

The first symptoms may be due to the tumour causing a build-up of pressure inside the skull. This is called raised intracranial pressure.

Symptoms depend on where the tumour is in the brain. They can include:

  • headaches
  • feeling or being sick
  • seizures (fits)
  • changes in personality or being confused
  • numbness or weakness on one side of the body
  • problems with speech.

Some people might not have any symptoms. Instead, the tumour may be found during tests to find out more about the primary cancer.

Diagnosis of secondary brain cancer

A doctor may suspect secondary brain cancer if you have symptoms, and:

  • you have had cancer before, even a long time ago
  • a secondary cancer has been found in other places, such as the liver or bones
  • there is more than one tumour in the brain – this is because primary brain tumours usually only affect one area of the brain.

Your doctors will need to do some tests to diagnose secondary brain cancer. You will have one of the following:

  • Brain CT scan
  • Brain MRI scan

Your doctor may also:

Rarely, if scans have found any tumours, you may have a biopsy. Your doctor or nurse will explain more about this.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. We have more information that can help.

Getting support

Finding out you have secondary brain cancer can be very difficult. You may feel shocked and find it hard to understand or accept. Talking about how you feel to close family and friends may help. Your doctor and specialist nurse can also give you support. 

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

You may also want to get support from a brain tumour charity, such as:

Driving and secondary brain cancer

If you are diagnosed with a secondary brain tumour, you must stop driving straight away.

You may not be allowed to drive for a time after diagnosis. Your doctor, surgeon or specialist nurse will tell you if this applies to you. This change can be upsetting and frustrating. But you must follow the advice they give you.

If you have a driving licence, you must tell the licencing agency you have been diagnosed with secondary brain cancer. If you live in England, Scotland or Wales, contact the Drivers and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) on 0300 790 6806. If you live in Northern Ireland, contact the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) on 0300 200 7861.

You could be fined if you do not tell them. You could also be prosecuted if you have an accident.

If you have to stop driving, the DVLA or DVA will tell you when you are allowed to start driving again. This depends on:

  • how many tumours there are and where they are in the brain
  • whether you have had any seizures
  • your treatment
  • the type of driving license you have.

Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia (around 60% of diagnoses in the UK), although it is comparatively rare for under-65s.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

The exact cause is unknown but we do know that ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ form in the brain due to two proteins called amyloid (plaques) and tau (tangles).

  • Amyloid is a naturally occurring protein which for a reason that is not yet understood begins to malfunction, creating beta amyloid which is toxic to the brain cells. Plaques form consisting of dead cells and amyloid protein.
  • Tau protein naturally occurs in the brain and helps brain cells communicate with each other but for a reason that is not yet understood it can become abnormal and “clump together” leading to death of the brain cells affected.

People diagnosed with Alzheimer’s may additionally have a reduction of a chemical in the brain (called acetylcholine). This functions as a chemical messenger to take information to and from brain cells (neurons), so a reduction in this chemical leads to information not being transmitted effectively.

How does Alzheimer’s develop?

Research suggests that changes in the brain can occur up to ten years before a person starts to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The symptoms are usually mild at the beginning and gradually worsen over time. These may include:

  • difficulty remembering recent events while having a good memory for past events
  • poor concentration
  • difficulty recognising people or objects
  • poor organisation skills
  • confusion
  • disorientation
  • slow, muddled or repetitive speech
  • withdrawal from family and friends
  • problems with decision making, problem solving, planning and sequencing tasks

Managing the effects of Alzheimer’s disease

Medication is available which may help slow progression but it does not prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease.

  • People with Alzheimer’s may be prescribed a type of medication called cholinesterase inhibitors. There are three options: Donepezil, Rivastigmine or Galantamine
  • These medications may improve concentration, which helps with memory, thinking and language. These effects can last for approximately 6-12 months, although there is now some evidence showing they can benefit a person for much longer. They support the communication between the nerve cells in the brain by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine
  • Memantine can also be prescribed in the moderate to severe stage of Alzheimer’s disease alongside one of the above medications. This medication blocks the effects of excess glutamate in the brain. Memantine can help with memory, reasoning, language and attention