In some cases of lung cancer, the disease can metastasize, spreading to other parts of the body. These new cancer sites are called mets, and they can include instances of lung cancer metastasis to the brain.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), lung cancer was the second most common type of cancer in 2020. It is also the type of cancer responsible for the most deaths.

As many as 40% of people with lung cancer develop brain metastases, or brain mets. These are new tumors that form as a result of cancer spreading from the lungs.

Brain mets can cause headaches, mood swings, paralysis, and other issues. Although they are often treatable with radiation therapy, the less harmful immunotherapy is becoming a popular option.

The outlook for people with brain mets varies depending on the severity of the disease, among other factors.

This article provides more information about the symptoms of brain mets in people with lung cancer. It also looks at the outlook for people with lung cancer and brain mets, the treatment options, and more.

A person with lung cancer receives a scan to identify brain mets.Share on Pinterest
Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images

Research suggests that about 10% of people with lung cancer present with brain mets during their initial diagnosis, and up to 40% of people with lung cancer will get brain mets at some point.

Due to this, it is important for people with lung cancer to know the symptoms of brain mets so that they can seek treatment if they notice any appear. The symptoms of brain mets include:

  • headaches
  • vomiting
  • alteration in consciousness
  • seizures
  • neurological symptoms, such as tingling and motor changes

In addition, an individual’s lung cancer symptoms may change, or new symptoms may appear. They may have the following symptoms:

  • a worsening or persistent cough
  • coughing up blood
  • chest pain
  • loss of appetite
  • unexplained weight loss
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • recurrent infections

Brain mets are secondary cancers. They grow when the primary cancer — such as lung cancer — spreads to the brain.

People with lung cancer are more likely to get brain mets than those with other cancers, such as breast cancer, melanoma, and kidney cancer. Brain mets are most common in people with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

In comparison, brain cancer is a primary cancer that originates in the brain. Brain tumors can be either benign, meaning that they are harmless, or malignant.

In some cases, a doctor may diagnose brain mets at the same time as confirming lung cancer. However, if brain mets only appear once the disease progresses, the doctor will diagnose them at a later stage. They may use a range of tests to diagnose brain mets.

CT scan

A doctor may order a CT scan, which might involve the use of a contrast dye to make the details of the scan more clear.

A CT scan is often the first test that doctors order when diagnosing brain mets.

MRI scan

An MRI scan creates detailed images of the organs and tissues.

The medical community considers the MRI scan the gold standard of diagnostic tools. The reason for this is that it provides comprehensive information about the size, location, pressure effects, and characteristics of the brain mets.

Doctors can use a range of treatments to treat lung cancer with brain mets. The treatment that they choose depends on various factors, such as:

  • the type and size of the tumor
  • the initial site of the cancer
  • the stage of the cancer at the primary site and the stage of the mets
  • the person’s overall health

The goal of treatment depends on the individual. A doctor will help them make a decision based on their overall health, their symptoms, and how far the cancer has spread.

Sometimes, treatment aims to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life rather than curing cancer.

Doctors have three primary treatment options for lung cancer with brain mets: drugs, surgery, and radiation therapy.


Doctors may use non-chemotherapeutic drugs to manage a person’s symptoms. These medications may include pain relievers to help with headaches, drugs to control epilepsy, or medicines to help with edema or swelling of the tissues.

A doctor may also prescribe chemotherapeutic drugs to attack and kill the cancer cells. Chemotherapy can treat an individual’s brain mets and the primary lung cancer simultaneously.


Advances in surgery tools and techniques have made it possible for surgeons to remove brain mets relatively safely with minimal consequences to brain function and little to no risk of death.

However, surgery typically only takes place if the surgeon feels that it is the best treatment option for an individual. In some cases, it may not be safe to operate on a person with brain mets.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy can target either the whole brain or smaller, more focused areas.

The radiologist will use a precise, focused beam of radiation to treat brain mets with a small diameter. This concentrated beam protects the surrounding brain tissue from damage, limiting the side effects of the treatment.

In comparison with general radiation therapy, this process has fewer risks and results in a shorter hospital stay.

The treatment’s success depends on whether the primary cancer is under control. Treating brain mets without controlling the primary cancer can lead to worse health outcomes.


Immunotherapy is a newer form of treatment suitable for some people with brain mets. This treatment uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. It teaches the body which cells to fight and boosts the immune cells, giving the body the tools it needs to fight the cancer.

Although it is a newer treatment option for lung cancer with brain mets, some clinical trials and studies have shown promising results. One 2020 study showed that people who received radiation therapy and immunotherapy had a higher survival rate than those who received radiation therapy alone.

Brain mets are generally a sign of a less promising outlook because they lead to other health effects, such as neurological deterioration. Their presence usually significantly shortens an individual’s estimated lifespan.

A person’s outlook will depend on many factors, including:

  • how the cancer affects the brain
  • how far the cancer has spread
  • the neurological problems they are experiencing
  • the type of primary tumor
  • the length of time between the initial cancer diagnosis and the brain mets diagnosis
  • the characteristics of the brain mets

It is common for cancer to recur within the body or brain, so follow-up appointments with imaging studies are crucial. Some people have brain mets that occur later on, and it is important to treat these changes as quickly as possible.

When an individual receives a diagnosis of brain mets, they may feel overwhelmed, scared, or upset. Their family members and loved ones may also find the diagnosis incredibly difficult to process.

In-person and online support groups allow both the individual and their loved ones to connect with other people experiencing the same situation.

Brain metastases, or brain mets, occur when the primary cancer spreads to the brain.

Up to 40% of people with lung cancer develop brain mets at some point during the disease. Brain mets are often associated with a less positive outlook and a lower survival rate.

Medication, surgery, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy can shrink the cancer and help a person manage their symptoms. These treatments may also extend the person’s life expectancy.

Some people with cancer, and their loved ones, may benefit from joining support groups.