October is breast cancer awareness month. Throughout the month, there are a range of fund-raising activities and events taking place to support the research and treatment of breast cancer. It also encourages people to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease, which is the most common cancer in the UK, representing 15% of all cancers.
The majority of breast cancer patients are women, although it can affect men as well. According to Breast Cancer.co.uk, the rate of breast cancer in women has doubled over the past 50 years and a woman in the UK born after 1960 has around a 1 in 7 risk of developing breast cancer.
86% of breast cancers in women are diagnosed at stage 1 or stage 2, which means that the cancer hasn’t spread throughout the body. Stage 4 breast cancer is known as metastatic breast cancer. Metastasis is the process of cancer cells breaking away from the original tumour and travelling to other areas of the body.
The brain is one of the most common areas to which breast cancer spreads, occurring in around 15% to 24% of women with metastatic breast cancer (also known as secondary breast cancer). Breast cancer may also spread to the lungs, liver, and bones, either through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system.
What are the symptoms of breast cancer with brain metastases?
The general symptoms that breast cancer has spread include constant tiredness, nausea, and unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite.
Specific signs that breast cancer has spread to the brain include headache; feeling sick or being sick, weakness or numbness down one side of the body; seizures; difficulty with speech; problems with vision; confusion; memory problems; and changes in behaviour, mood, and personality.
How is secondary breast cancer to the brain treated?
When breast cancer spreads to the brain, it can be treated but not cured. Treatments may involve slowing down the growth of the cancer and also relieving symptoms, and may be given alone or in combination.
When breast cancer spreads to the brain, the cells are still breast cancer cells rather than brain cancer cells. This means that the treatment for breast cancer with brain metastases may vary from the treatments for other types of brain cancer.
The type of treatment will depend on a range of factors, including how many tumours are present and what size they are; the location in the brain; and if the cancer has spread to any other areas of the body.
The most common treatments include steroid drugs to reduce pressure and swelling on the brain and relieve symptoms; and radiotherapy or stereotactic radiosurgery or radiotherapy.
Stereotactic radiosurgery is also known as Gamma Knife surgery, and it is not a conventional type of surgery involving incisions or insertions into the brain. It uses highly targeted doses of radiation from an external machine to destroy the cancer cells, whilst avoiding the healthy tissue.