When Cancer Spreads: The Complex Diagnosis of Brain Metastases

May 31, 2017 | Vicki Goodman

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ost of us have likely experienced the devastating impact a cancer diagnosis can have, either personally or through a loved one or family member affected. The identification of a secondary brain tumor, referred to as ‘brain metastases’, which begins elsewhere in the body and spreads to the brain, can be a complex and emotionally difficult hurdle for patients and family members to navigate. This is impacted further by the understanding that once cancer spreads, it can often be harder to control and treat.

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The likelihood of developing a metastatic brain tumor depends on the type of cancer a patient has and how advanced it is. Lung, breast, melanoma, colon and kidney cancers commonly spread to the brain. This happens when the cancer cells at the primary site separate and enter the blood system.  The secondary tumor is most often identified when a patient has a brain scan because they are experiencing neurological symptoms – usually headache and/or seizures. The treatment approach includes targeting the actual tumors, as well as the symptoms caused.

As a leader in cancer research, Bristol-Myers Squibb recognizes the serious challenges faced by patients with cancer metastatic to the brain. We strive to advance our scientific understanding of these complex cancer cases and are focused on developing Immuno-Oncology (I-O) therapies that can potentially help treat them.

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In the case of melanoma, multiple brain metastases are common. More than 60 percent of people with Stage IV (advanced) melanoma develop brain metastases, which often develop several years after a melanoma diagnosis and, at first, may not present any symptoms. This can make the condition hard to diagnose in many cases.

In recent years as treatments for primary cancer have improved, patients are often living longer, which has resulted in a higher incidence of secondary brain cancer. While radiation therapy and surgery are treatment options, brain metastases can often recur after radiation or surgery. Additionally, some patients may not be candidates for these approaches as their cancers may be too widespread. The life expectancy for patients with brain metastases is typically shorter than for patients with metastases in other sites, meaning new treatment options are needed for metastatic brain cancer. As such, the advocacy and research communities are eager to understand the potential impact of new approaches, and how I-O therapies may help.

To learn more about melanoma metastatic to the brain, visit the American Brain Tumor Association. You can also follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BMSNews for updates on our work in I-O.