Brain metastasis from breast cancer: Our research means better treatments (w/VIDEO)

October 17, 2014 | by Tami Dennis

A hallmark of cancer is that it doesn’t always limit itself to a primary location. It spreads. Breast cancer and lung cancer in particular are prone to spread, or metastasize, to the brain. Often the brain metastasis isn’t discovered until years after the initial diagnosis, just when patients were beginning to regain some sense of normalcy and control over their lives.
Like many patients, Joan Rose-Hall thought she had completely recovered from breast cancer. She thought she was past the treatment, past the fear. Then she begin to experience changes, small things really, in her daily routine.
“I noticed that I had difficulty concentrating, difficulty finding my words. I became slow on the keyboard,” she says in the video above. “I actually thought I was cracking up.”
Rose-Hall didn’t associate the changes with her previous diagnosis of breast cancer. Many people wouldn't. Instead, she went to see a psychiatrist. That psychiatrist referred her to City of Hope.
How most brain tumors develop
There, Rahul Jandial, M.D. and Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Neurosurgery, found a very large tumor in  her occiptal lobe. Metastasis to the brain, says the neurosurgeon and scientist, is more than 10 times more common than brain tumors that begin in the brain, known as primary tumors. In fact, metastatic brain tumors occur in 20 to 40 percent of cancer patients. But only recently have doctors been able to treat brain metastasis effectively.
Jandial and John Termini, Ph.D., a researcher and professor in molecular medicine, are laying the groundwork for a deeper understanding of how cancer cells spread to the brain. The goal of their work, detailed recently in The Journal of Cancer Research,  is even more effective treatments.
Already, they’ve learned that breast cancer cells masquerade as neurons, allowing them to hide from the immune system and cross the blood-brain barrier. That study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Meeting the need for new, better research
“A lot of what we're publishing, a lot of what we're working on, just wasn't known," says Jandial, pointing to a previously unmet need for his current research. Now, he says, "people with advanced cancer are living longer and longer."
Rose-Hall is proof of that.
"The feedback I got from everyone that I worked with at City of Hope were there were things that could be done," she says.
Today, not only is her tumor gone, her cells are enabling researchers to investigate potential new treatments for brain metastases. “I never expected to get my life back,” Rose-Hall says. But she did.
Now, with her help, doctors and researchers at City of Hope will be able to give more people their lives back. That is the research-treatment cycle at City of Hope.
Learn more about brain tumor treatment and research, as well as symptoms that you should never ignore if you’d had cancer. Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.
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