When cancer starts in one place in your body and spreads to another, it’s called metastasis. When lung cancer metastasizes to the brain, it means the primary lung cancer has created a secondary cancer in the brain.

About 20 to 40 percent of adults with non-small cell lung cancer go on to develop brain metastases at some point during their illness. The most frequent metastatic sites are:

  • adrenal gland
  • brain and nervous system
  • bones
  • liver
  • other lung or respiratory system

There are 2 different kinds of lung cancer:

Lung cancers most typically spread to other parts of the body through the lymph vessels and blood vessels.

While it’s easier for lung cancer to spread through the lymph vessels, it generally takes longer until the secondary metastatic cancer takes hold. With blood vessels, it’s usually harder for the cancer to enter. However, once it does, it spreads relatively quickly.

Generally speaking, metastasis through the blood cells is worse in the short term, and metastasis through lymph cells is worse in the long term.

If you’re diagnosed with lung cancer, it’s especially important to pay attention to symptoms of brain metastasis, including:

If you have any of these symptoms, report them to your doctor immediately.

To screen for metastatic brain cancer, doctors commonly use radiology tests such as:

Occasionally, a doctor may take a biopsy to determine if there’s brain cancer present.

While sex, ethnicity, and age can affect survival, the life expectancy after a diagnosis of brain metastases from lung cancer is generally poor. Without treatment, the average survival rate is under 6 months. With treatment, that number can increase slightly.

Usually those who develop brain metastases farther out from diagnosis have a slightly higher survival rate than those whose lung cancer metastasizes to the brain earlier. The difference, however, is usually small.

When it comes to treatment of lung cancer brain metastases, the available options depend on several different factors, such as:

  • the type of primary cancer that was diagnosed
  • the number, size, and location of brain tumors
  • the genetic behavior of the cancer cells
  • age and health
  • other attempted treatments

Treatment for metastatic brain cancer is dependent on the original type of lung cancer. When lung cancer spreads to the brain, it’s still considered lung cancer, not brain cancer.

The main types of treatment for brain metastases are:

Surgery

Surgery may be the first line of defense brain metastases if:

  • there aren’t many tumors
  • the disease is controlled
  • you’re in otherwise good health

Whole brain radiation

Your doctor may recommend whole brain radiation if there are several tumors present. It can also follow surgery in some cases.

Stereotactic radiosurgery

This treatment is a high-dose radiation therapy that targets a specific part of the brain and is usually used in patients with fewer tumors.

Immunotherapies and targeted therapies

Newer treatments, such as immunotherapy and targeted therapies that can cross the blood-brain barrier, may be recommended as complementary treatment options.

In the late stage of lung cancer that’s spread to brain, the most frequent complications include:

During the final states, palliative care professionals try to optimize quality of life with psychological, technological, medical, and sociological considerations.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women worldwide. If lung cancer has spread to the brain, the prognosis may be unnerving.

If you or someone you know has lung cancer, it’s important to be informed and vigilant for symptoms of brain metastases. If you notice these symptoms, talk with your doctor and discuss treatment options that may be available to provide comfort or increase quality of life and chances of survival.