Breast cancer survivors must be vigilant for signs of brain metastasis

October 19, 2015 | by Denise Heady

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a great reminder of just how far the fight against breast cancer has come. It is still one of the most common cancers among women, yet more women than ever are surviving the disease. Today, there are an estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.
 
While survival rates continue to climb due to better treatments, earlier detection and increased awareness, survivors of the disease must continue to safeguard their health by staying alert to other, often unexpected symptoms.
 
This ongoing vigilance is necessary to protect women — and men — from secondary cancers caused when breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, such as to the brain.
 
“What is rarely known about brain cancers is that America has about 10,000 new brain cancers a year that arise from the flesh or the substance of the brain — 200,000 however, actually spread to the brain,” says City of Hope neurosurgeon and scientist Rahul Jandial, M.D., Ph.D.
 
Considering that an estimated 40 percent of women with HER2 positive breast cancer (around 20 percent of all breast cancers) are at risk of developing brain metastases, drawing attention to these statistics — and what survivors can do to detect symptoms early — is all the more critical.
 
Other cancers that are most likely to spread to the brain are melanoma and cancers of the lung, breast and colon. Brain tumors often appear years after a patient is considered cancer-free.
 
“The warning signs of brain metastases are not always painful and so unfortunately we see a lot of people who ignore them or come in days later and our window to help them recover neurological function sometimes closes,” Jandial has said.
 
Patients also don’t associate common symptoms of brain metastasis, such as balance problems, progressive headaches, seizures and weakness, with their previous diagnosis.
 
 
This was the case for breast cancer patient Joan Rose-Hall. She thought she had beaten her disease. She was one of the millions of women who survived cancer. So when she began to experience small changes in her daily routine, she never once thought it was somehow related to her previous cancer diagnosis.
 
“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.”
 
Instead of visiting an oncologist, Joan went to see a psychiatrist, who referred her to City of Hope.
 
“Initially it was very frightening. The cancer was back and I didn’t know if I had the courage and the strength to go through it a second time,” said Rose-Hall. “Dr. Jandial, who was my neurosurgeon, gave me a lot of hope,” she said.
 
At City of Hope, Jandial was able to successfully remove the tumor from her brain, helping Joan get her life back.
 
Early detection is everything
 
Jandial stresses the importance of early detection and awareness as key factors in treating brain metastasis.
 
“The warning signs are important not to ignore because it gives us the opportunity to catch potential complications. Early detection gives us a better chance to help patients recover the brain or nerve function that was affected by the cancer,” Jandial said.
 
While metastatic brain cancer was once thought to be terminal, Jandial, assistant professor in the Division of Neurosurgery at City of Hope, is working with his team to change this. Through their ongoing research, they continue to give new hope to cancer patients who have these secondary brain tumors, while making innovative advancements in this new frontier.

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Learn more about our unique patient experience, how to make an appointment or get a second opinion at City of Hope. You may also request a new patient appointment online or call 800-826-HOPE (4673) for more information.

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