Most people with secondary breast cancer don’t get tumours in their brain, but roughly one to three out of every ten patients do.
What problems can secondaries in the brain cause?
Tumours in your brain can cause problems with brain function that can lead to difficulties such as:
- Behaviour changes
- Altered speech
- Difficulty coordinating your movements
This can affect your quality of life and you may find that you need to have people’s help to do some day-to-day things. Treatments may help to control the cancer and/or relieve some of these symptoms.
What treatments might I receive?
Some anticancer drugs can help to treat secondaries in the brain. Not all anticancer drugs are able to reach the brain. Ones that might help include tamoxifen, aromatase inhibitors, megestrol acetate, and certain chemotherapies.
The other main treatments that can help to control secondaries in the brain or reduce symptoms:
Your treatment will be planned to reduce the symptoms of your tumours and their impact on your life, and to prolong your life.
You’ll also be offered tailored care to help manage any problems caused by your secondaries.
This may include psychological support, rehabilitation with physiotherapy, help with daily activities, and speech and language therapy.
Many people with tumours in their brain have radiotherapy given to their entire brain. This is known as whole brain radiotherapy.
It can help to reduce your symptoms, improve the amount you can do, and prolong your life. Whole brain radiotherapy can be given instead of surgery or after surgery.
Other types of radiotherapy that can sometimes be used to treat small numbers of brain secondaries are stereotactic radiosurgery and radiosurgery.
These use a strong burst of radiation targeted precisely at individual tumours. They have less side-effects than whole brain radiotherapy.
However, they are only suitable for people who have a single tumour, or few tumours. Your radiation or clinical oncologist can explain what side effects you might experience and how long these may last.
For example, whole brain radiotherapy usually causes hair loss. It can also cause include fatigue, nausea and changes in memory or ability to think.
If the tumours in your brain start to cause symptoms, your oncologist may suggest a course of steroids (also known as corticosteroids), such as dexamethasone. These can lessen your symptoms by reducing swelling around the tumours in your brain.
Steroids are usually only a short-term solution, because if you use them at high doses for more than a few weeks they can cause side effects, such as muscle weakness, weight gain and fragile skin.
Steroids won’t target the cancer itself, so your treatment team may recommend other treatments for you too, such as radiotherapy.
If you have a small number of tumours in your brain, you may be offered surgery to remove them.
Unfortunately, most patients with secondary cancer in the brain have too many tumours to be removed surgically.
If you have many tumours, whole brain radiotherapy might be a better treatment for you.
If you’re offered surgery, your surgeon can explain what side effects you might experience and the risks, depending on the details of your operation.
Julie and Rashpal describe how they managed their diagnoses of cancer in the brain:
Advice on getting the best care
To help you feel confident you’re getting the best care, you may want to:
- Ask your treatment team to explain what your treatment options are, and why they are recommending a particular drug or procedure for you
- Ask whether an expert such as an neurosurgeon can be consulted about your treatment, if they haven’t been already
- Ask whether there are any additional options for you, including new procedures, clinical trials or treatment at other centres
- Go over the risks and benefits of each treatment with your treatment team
- Speak up if you get new symptoms or side effects – your treatment team can often help by prescribing additional treatment
Breast Cancer Now’s health information is produced following best practice guidelines developed by the Patient Information Forum.
Find out more about how we develop our health information and the Patient Information Forum.