Symptoms and diagnosis of secondary brain cancer

The symptoms of secondary brain cancer depend on the area of your brain where the tumour is found and the pressure it puts on your brain. Different parts of your brain control different areas of your body, so symptoms depend on where the tumour is found.

Your brain is contained within a fixed amount of space in your skull. A tumour will increase the pressure in this space. This is known as raised intracranial pressure (ICP). This pressure can cause symptoms. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Personality or behaviour changes
  • Changes in intellect or problems remembering things
  • Speech difficulties
  • Problems writing, reading or calculating
  • Uncoordinated movements/unsteadiness
  • Flickering of your eyes
  • Facial weakness
  • Weakness on one side of your body
  • Loss of smell
  • Loss of vision
  • Swallowing problems
  • Feeling sick
  • Stiff neck
  • Headache – especially if worse in the morning, wakes you up during the night or occurs when you sneeze, cough or bend down
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Fits, seizures or blackouts

If you suffer from seizures, you may not be allowed to drive. Your doctor will advise you in this case.

If you have any of these symptoms or other symptoms not mentioned above, tell your oncologist or oncology liaison nurse. These are also the symptoms of primary brain cancer. But remember these can also be symptoms of conditions other than secondary or primary brain cancer.


Depending on your symptoms, your doctor might send you for the following tests:

  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan
  • Blood tests
  • X-rays

Special tests:

EEG: This test records the electrical activity in your brain. The technician will put some electrodes (plastic discs) around your scalp and you will be asked to remain still. The test does not hurt but can last an hour. EEG is used particularly if you have had seizures.

Angiogram: An angiogram looks at the blood vessels in your head and is used if your doctors are concerned that your tumour is close to a blood vessel. The test involves you lying down while your doctor injects dye into the blood vessels in your groin. This shows up your blood vessels so that they will appear clearly on a scan. This is not painful but it takes some time.

Biopsy: Your doctor may need to do a biopsy of your tumour to find out exactly what type of tumour you have. A biopsy is a small tissue sample of the tumour. You will be put to sleep for your biopsy. Your doctor will make a small hole in your skull (burr hole) and use a needle to collect the sample. Scans of your brain will help your doctor to know the exact location of your tumour. The biopsy is then sent to the laboratory and examined. Afterwards, you will be kept in hospital for a few days.

Learn more about the above tests

Call our National Cancer Helpline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 7pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm