Brain Tumors Overview Secondary

Secondary brain tumors develop when cancer originates in other organs or tissues and spreads to the brain. These secondary, or metastatic, tumors are more common than primary brain tumors, which originate in the brain or surrounding tissues. A secondary brain tumor may be the first sign of cancer that began elsewhere in the body, or a patient with a history of cancer may be diagnosed with the secondary brain tumor after their initial diagnosis.

Types of Secondary Brain Tumors

Secondary brain tumors can originate from primary cancer present anywhere in the body. Some of the most common types of cancer to metastasize to the brain are:

  • Bladder
  • Breast
  • Colon
  • Kidney
  • Lung
  • Melanoma (skin cancer)
  • Neuroblastoma (cancer of the sympathetic nervous system, such as the adrenal glands)
  • Sarcoma (cancer of the connective tissue cells).

Detection and Diagnosis of Secondary Brain Tumors

A secondary brain tumor is usually discovered when a person experiences new brain tumor symptoms, such as:

  • Changes in sensation
  • Difficulty with balance or coordination
  • Emotional instability or personality changes
  • Headaches
  • Hearing, memory or vision problems
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Weakness or lethargy.

A doctor can use several tests to make a diagnosis, including:

  • Analysis of spinal fluid
  • Biopsy
  • CT exam, an X-ray of the brain using contrast material in the blood vessel
  • Imaging tests, including brain and spinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Neurological examination
  • Tests to find primary cancer.

Treatment of Secondary Brain Tumors

Treatment for a secondary brain tumor depends on the location and type of tumor; surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are some options. If the brain is under excessive intracranial pressure, surgery may be necessary. During surgery, a doctor may remove the tumor and provide a sample of the tissue for a biopsy. This biopsy tissue can help to determine the primary source of the cancer if it is not already known. In addition, a shunt can divert excessive cerebrospinal fluid if the brain is under pressure.

If additional treatment is necessary after surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are common options to rid the body of cancerous cells. Immunotherapy with antibodies—with or without radioactive atoms—can also be administered directly into the tumor or systemically (throughout the body).

Radiation therapy is the most common treatment for secondary brain tumors, and newer treatment regimes include localized, higher doses of radiation. Successful treatment depends on many factors, including the:

  • Grade of the tumor
  • Location of the tumor
  • Number of tumors
  • Type of tumor.


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