Secondary brain tumours

Secondary brain tumours occur when cancer cells have spread to the brain from a cancer that has started in another part of the body.

What is a secondary brain tumour?

The place in the body where a cancer first starts is called a primary tumour.

A secondary tumour occurs when cancer cells break away from the primary tumour and travel through the blood system to another part of the body. When cancer cells spread to another part of the body they are called secondaries or metastases.

Some types of cancer are more likely to spread to the brain. The most likely are cancers of the lungbreastbowelkidney (renal) and skin (malignant melanoma).

Secondary brain tumours can cause the same symptoms as primary brain tumours. It's important to know if a tumour in the brain is a primary or secondary cancer as the two are treated differently.

Symptoms of secondary brain tumours

The most common symptoms of secondary brain tumours are:

  • headaches
  • weakness in areas of the body
  • memory problems
  • mood swings and changes in behaviour
  • seizures (fits)
  • feeling or being sick
  • confusion
  • lethargy.

A doctor may suspect a secondary brain tumour if:

  • You have a history of cancer elsewhere in the body, even from a long time ago, which could have spread to the brain.
  • When the rest of your body is scanned, secondaries are also found in other places, such as the liver or bones.
  • Tests show that there is more than one tumour in the brain - primary brain tumours usually remain and grow in one place. If there is more than one secondary tumour in the brain, these are sometimes called multiple brain secondaries.

Some people with secondary brain tumours have no signs or symptoms and their secondaries are discovered during investigations of their primary tumour.

Sometimes secondaries are found before the primary cancer has been diagnosed. In a small number of cases it may not be possible to find the original cancer. In this situation, the tumour is known as a secondary brain tumour from an unknown primary.

*Information provided by Macmillan cancer support

At The Christie, the neuro-oncology team treat and manage different types of brain tumours.

Last updated: March 2023