The brain is a common area of the body to which breast cancer cells spread. About 15-20 percent of all women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer may have it in the brain, called brain metastases.
A diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer to the brain can sound frightening, but there are treatments available for you.
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 tumor can affect these parts of your life.
While about 15-20 percent of women diagnosed with metastatic 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 receptor-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.
It’s possible for brain metastases to affect your memory, vision and behavior. They can also cause frequent headaches, dizziness, nausea, 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 symptom 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.
Doctors use imaging 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 metastatic 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 diagnosis, your doctor may recommend a biopsy. During a biopsy, a surgeon removes a small piece of brain tissue 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 tumor or with multiple tumors spread throughout the brain.
Brain metastases are typically treated with local therapies, such as
- a type of surgery called a craniotomy
- stereotactic radiosurgery, a type of radiation therapy
- whole brain radiation therapy.
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.