Brain Metastases

Updated 
April 19, 2018
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The brain is a common area of the body to which breast cancer cells spread. About 15-20 percent of all women diagnosed with metastaticinfo-icon breast cancer may have it in the brain, called brain metastases.

A diagnosisinfo-icon of metastatic breast cancer to the brain can sound frightening, but there are treatments available for you.

What Are Brain Metastases?

Brain metastases are areas of cancer that develop when breast cancer cells travel to the brain and form tumors. And, because the brain controls our movements, senses and more, the location of the tumorinfo-icon can affect these parts of your life.

Who Gets Brain Metastases?

While about 15-20 percent of women diagnosed with metastaticinfo-icon breast cancer experience brain metastases, some have a higher risk than others. Doctors don’t know why, but breast cancer that is both HER2-positive and hormone receptorinfo-icon-negative, or triple-negative is more likely to spread to the brain than hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. You may also be at higher risk for brain metastases if you

  • are younger than 50
  • were diagnosed with lung or liver metastases in the past

Still, it’s possible for any type of breast cancer to spread to the brain, and for people of any background or age to develop brain metastases.

What Are the Symptoms of Brain Metastases?

It’s possible for brain metastases to affect your memory, vision and behavior. They can also cause frequent headaches, dizziness, nauseainfo-icon, vomiting and seizures. These symptoms may not immediately seem like cancer because many other health issues, the natural aging process, and even some breast cancer treatments you may already be taking can cause them. 

If a symptominfo-icon is new or more intense, report it to your healthcare team right away. They can help you find out if you’re experiencing symptoms of brain metastases, side effects related to breast cancer treatment, or something else.

How Are Brain Metastases Diagnosed?

Doctors use imaginginfo-icon tests to create pictures of the brain and learn whether cancer has spread to it. These tests include

You may get one of these tests after you report symptoms to your doctor, or as part of your routine follow-up tests. If you’ve had metastaticinfo-icon breast cancer before, an imaging test may be enough to know you have brain metastases. But if imaging tests aren’t enough to confirm a diagnosisinfo-icon, your doctor may recommend a biopsyinfo-icon. During a biopsy, a surgeoninfo-icon removes a small piece of brain tissueinfo-icon so it can be tested for breast cancer cells.

Brain metastases are usually diagnosed after metastatic breast cancer has been found in other parts of the body, such as the bones, lungs or liver. But it is possible for the brain to be the first place breast cancer spreads. It’s possible to be diagnosed with one tumorinfo-icon or with multiple tumors spread throughout the brain.

How Are Brain Metastases Treated?

Brain metastases are typically treated with local therapies, such as

Systemicinfo-icon therapies like chemotherapyinfo-icon, hormonal therapyinfo-icon and targeted therapyinfo-icon are an option in many cases.

If tumors form in the fluid around the brain and the spinal cord, your doctor may recommend treatment with a type of targeted chemotherapy called intrathecal chemotherapy.