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Know the warning signs: NSCLC and brain metastases

physicians looking at MRI test results for brain

Keeping close track of your symptoms is vital with a non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) diagnosis. Approximately 1 in 4 NSCLC patients can experience brain metastasis, which is when cancer cells spread from the lung to the brain.

What are NSCLC-related brain metastases?

Brain metastases, also known as brain mets, occur when the cancer cells break off from the original tumor and enter the brain tissue. As the cancer grows, it can cause pressure on the brain and affect overall function.

In addition to brain tissue, the cancer can also spread to the fluid surrounding the brain, causing leptomeningeal disease (LMD)

How are NSCLC-related brain metastases diagnosed? 

The initial diagnosis is usually made using an MRI with contrast. Depending on your diagnosis, follow-up MRIs every 6 weeks to 3 months are scheduled to help monitor how potential treatments are working. 

For an LMD diagnosis, a fluid sample is taken from the lower part of the spine during a lumbar puncture test

Approximately 7.4% of NSCLC patients will present with brain mets at their initial cancer diagnosis, and 25-30% will develop brain mets throughout their disease. 

What symptoms signify a possible brain metastases diagnosis? 

Symptoms of brain metastasis can be either focal or global. Focal symptoms refer to symptoms that are related to a specific part of the brain whereas global symptoms are those that interfere with general brain function.

Symptoms include:

  • Focal diagnosis: slurred speech, blurry vision, weak limbs
  • Global diagnosis: headaches, confusion

Additional symptoms might include memory loss, unsteadiness, seizures, and sudden personality changes. Symptoms can shift quickly, so it’s important to let your doctor know how you’re feeling and what medications you’re taking.

If your doctor determines that your NSCLC has spread to your brain, there are treatment options, including radiation and chemotherapy, that you can both review before making an informed decision about care. 

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