The most common cancers that spread to the brain are lung, breast, bowel, kidney cancer and melanoma.

What is secondary cancer in the brain?

Cancer that begins in other parts of the body can sometimes spread to the brain. This is called secondary, advanced or metastatic brain cancer.

Cancer that begins in the brain is called primary brain cancer.

Cancer is a disease of the body's cells. It starts in our genes. Our bodies are constantly making new cells, a process controlled by certain genes. Cancers are caused by damage to these genes. As the damaged cells replicate a lump or tumour is formed. 

Tumours can be:

  • Benign - not cancerous. These do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant - cancerous


Cancer cells can move through the body using the bloodstream or the lymphatic system and grow in new places. 

When cells from a primary cancer spread to other parts of your body, the cancer cells usually still look the same.  

For example, if cancer began in the breast and then spread to the brain, the cancer cells in the bones will still look like breast cancer cells. 

Sometimes secondary cancer in the brain is found before the primary cancer has been diagnosed. When doctors cannot find where the cancer started growing, it is called cancer of unknown primary.

Secondary brain cancer symptoms

The symptoms of secondary brain cancer will depend on where the cancer cells are in the brain.

Signs and symptoms of secondary brain cancer may include:

  • headaches that do not go away and may gradually get worse
  • feeling sick and vomiting
  • weakness in an arm or leg
  • unsteadiness while walking
  • changes in vision
  • (fits) seizures
  • confusion, disorientation, or personality changes

Having these symptoms does not mean you have secondary brain cancer, but it is important to get any changes checked by your doctor.

Diagnosing secondary brain cancer

If you have any secondary brain cancer symptoms, get checked by your doctor as soon as possible.

Your doctor may suggest several tests to check for any changes.

These tests may include:

Physical examination
This will involve tests of your reflexes, muscle strength, coordination and sensation.

Eye exam
A doctor will look at your eye using a small hand-held lens and light. 

An MRI uses magnets and radio waves to make a detailed picture of the inside of your body.

CT scan
A CT scan creates a 3D picture of the inside of your body. It can show smaller cancers than an x-ray and enlarged lymph nodes.

PET-CT scan
A PET-CT scan uses a radioactive dye injected into your arm that will show up in areas affected by cancer. You may have to travel for this scan.

A biopsy takes a small sample of the abnormal cells to check if they're cancerous.

If you are diagnosed with any brain cancer, you must not drive until your doctor says you can.

After a diagnosis

If your test results show cancer, this can be a difficult time, and feelings can change from one moment to the next. 

Everyone reacts differently when they learn they have cancer. There is no right or wrong way to feel. 

Talk about your treatment options with your doctor, family and friends. Ask for as much information as you need. It is up to you how involved you want to be in decisions about your treatment. 

Treatment of secondary brain cancer

Secondary brain cancer treatment may include radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or immunotherapy.

The kind of treatment you have will depend on:

  • the type of primary cancer, if known
  • the treatment you have already had, if any
  • how far the cancer has spread
  • your general health

Before any treatment begins, make sure that you have discussed and understood your treatment team's advice. You may ask for a second opinion if you want one.

Palliative care

Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life. It is not just about end of life care. 

Palliative care will help:

  • you to enjoy the best quality of life you can for as long as possible
  • make sure that your physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs are looked after as well as possible
  • manage symptoms of your cancer
  • manage side effects of treatment
  • help you to feel in control of your situation
  • make your time as positive as it can be for you and your family/whānau

Speak with your treatment team about palliative care options for you and your family/whānau.

Using complementary or traditional healing

Sometimes people with cancer might think about using complementary therapies or traditional healing.

Some alternative, complementary and traditional healing methods may react with the treatment you receive and cause harmful side-effects.

It is important to talk to your treatment team about any other therapies you’re using or thinking about because they may interfere with hospital treatment.

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We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

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Last updated: October 18, 2022