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Brain Tumor Program: Metastatic Brain Tumors

Metastatic brain tumors begin in another part of the body and spread (metastasize) to the brain. These types of tumors are more common than tumors that start in the brain (primary brain tumors). In fact, patients diagnosed with metastatic brain tumors outnumber patients with primary brain tumors by more than 4 to 1.

UCI Health brain tumor experts play an important role in helping metastatic brain tumor patients in Orange County and across the country get the most effective care. Our team has led the effort to establish treatment guidelines and study the effectiveness of a wide variety of treatment options. Our goal is to improve the care and quality of life for patients with metastatic brain tumors.

Metastatic brain tumors: expertise

Patients from across Orange County and surrounding communities come to our UCI Health Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program for expert diagnosis and treatment. We specialize in treating patients with even the most difficult to reach brain tumors.

Highlights of our program include:

  • Team approach: We work closely with other cancer experts from our Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center to coordinate your care. Our goal is to simplify your experience whenever possible so you can focus on your health. Meet our team ›
  • Excellent outcomes: We offer a depth of expertise that helps more patients avoid complications, live longer and with a better quality of life.
  • Access to clinical trials: We lead many clinical trials, giving our patients access to the latest research studies and emerging treatments in metastatic brain tumors. Learn more about research and clinical trials ›
  • Patient support: We offer a broad range of support services, including emotional support from certified chaplains. Our goal is to relieve some of the stress that can go along with brain tumor treatment. Learn more about our patient support services ›

What are metastatic brain tumors?

Metastatic brain tumors, also known as secondary brain tumors, are similar to other tumor types in that they are a mass of abnormal cells. Unlike primary brain tumors, which are made up of brain cells, metastatic brain tumors are made up of cells from the primary cancer. Therefore, if a lung cancer patient’s tumor metastasizes to the brain, the brain tumor is actually made up of lung cancer cells.

Metastatic brain tumors often originate from the following primary tumors and cancers:

  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Certain soft tissue cancers (sarcomas)
  • Tumors that form from immature cells (germ cell tumors)
  • Kidney cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Skin cancer (melanoma)

Symptoms of metastatic brain tumors

Headaches and bursts of abnormal electrical activity in the brain (seizures) are common symptoms of metastatic brain tumors. You may experience additional symptoms depending on the size and location of the tumor.

Symptoms may include:

  • Difficulties with thinking and memory
  • Changes in personality and behavior
  • Muscle weakness on one side of the body
  • Uncoordinated movements, such as difficulty walking
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Nausea and vomiting

Causes of metastatic brain tumors

Metastatic brain tumors happen when a tumor in a different part of the body spreads (metastasizes) to the brain. This process happens slowly at first, involving only a small number of cancer cells that break off from the tumor and travel through the bloodstream (circulating tumor cells).

In the early stages, your immune system fights the circulating tumor cells. Over time, the growing number of circulating cancer cells in the blood becomes too much for your immune system to handle. The cancer cells collect and start growing inside other organs, including the liver, lungs or the brain.

Diagnosing metastatic brain tumors

Diagnostic tests help us confirm or rule out a metastatic brain tumor. We offer the complete range of tests, such as imaging scans and neurosurgery, to make an accurate diagnosis and create an effective treatment plan for you.

Tests we use to diagnose metastatic brain tumors include:

  • Imaging tests to find the primary tumor: If the primary tumor has not been diagnosed, we may need to perform imaging tests. These imaging tests may include chest X-rays for lung cancer, mammograms for breast cancer and computed tomography (CT) scans of the abdomen for liver cancer.
  • Neurologic exam: This test helps us determine whether you are experiencing any changes in brain functioning. During a neurologic exam, we ask questions and have you perform simple tasks to assess your vision, coordination, balance and detect changes in mood or behavior.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: CT scans use X-rays to produce three-dimensional (3-D) images of the brain. Find out more about CT brain scans ›
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): An MRI uses a tunnel-shaped machine along with radio waves and strong magnets to produce detailed images of the brain’s soft tissue. These images are often crisper and provide more detail than a CT scan. Learn more about MRI scans ›
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan: During a PET scan, we inject a safe radioactive substance with sugar into the blood. We use special imaging tests see how quickly brain tissue absorbs the sugar, which helps pinpoint the tumor’s location and whether it may spread. Learn more about PET scans ›
  • Cerebral angiography: This test, also known as an angiogram, is an X-ray of the blood vessels within the brain. Angiography helps us determine whether a tumor is affecting the blood supply to the brain. Learn more about cerebral arteriogram ›

Metastatic brain tumor treatments

We provide the latest, most effective treatments options for metastatic tumors. Once we confirm a diagnosis, our team will work with you create a personalized treatment plan.

A metastatic brain tumor may require a different treatment approach than the primary cancer that caused it. Our specialists are expertly trained to determine the most effective treatment for you depending on your unique needs.

Common treatments for metastatic brain tumors include:

  • Medications: Medications can help relieve symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, helping you feel more comfortable until you can receive other treatments.
  • Molecular testing and alternative chemotherapy drugs: If you cannot have or do not wish to receive standard brain tumor chemotherapy medications, you may benefit from alternative chemotherapy drugs. We conduct testing to examine the tumor at a molecular level, which helps us determine whether chemotherapy drugs typically used for other cancers can meet your unique needs.
  • Surgery: Many patients need surgery to remove the tumor. We are one of few programs in the region using advanced neurosurgery technologies, such as the BrainPath® Neurosurgery System. BrainPath allows us to safely remove tumors in hard to reach areas while reducing potential damage to normal tissue. Find out more about neurosurgery ›
  • Radiation: Radiation therapy uses powerful beams of high-frequency energy to destroy tumor cells that remain after surgery. Radiation therapy can also help shrink the tumor if you are not able to have surgery. Our team includes nationally recognized experts who assure the safety and accuracy of every treatment. Find out more about radiation therapy ›
  • Clinical trials: All our patients are considered for clinical trials. By participating in a trial, you have access to the latest techniques and therapies. You are also making a significant contribution toward improving treatments for future patients. See a list of open trials for brain tumors ›

Contact us

To schedule an appointment, call 714-456-8000 or fill out an online request form. You may also send us an email.

Our 24-hour promise: If you are a new patient, one of our brain tumor physicians will return your call within 24 hours. You can be seen in our offices within 48 hours after insurance approval.

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