What are the most common origins of brain metastasis?

Updated: Aug 01, 2018
  • Author: Victor Tse, MD, PhD; Chief Editor: Nicholas Lorenzo, MD, MHA, CPE  more...
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The most common origins of brain metastasis are systemic cancer of the lung, breast, skin, or GI tract. In 2700 cases from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the distribution of primary cancers was as follows: 48% lung, 15% breast, 9% melanoma, 1% lymphoma (mainly non-Hodgkin), 3% GI (3% colon and 2% pancreatic), 11% genitourinary (21% kidney, 46% testes, 5% cervix, 5% ovary), 10% osteosarcoma, 5% neuroblastoma, and 6% head and neck tumor. Of note, renal, GI, and pelvic cancers tend to metastasize to the cerebellum, whereas breast cancer most commonly affects the posterior pituitary. Cancer-cell trafficking may not be entirely random, and factors produced by stromal cells may guide their final destination in the brain.

Table 1 shows other data for sources of brain metastases.

Table 1. Sources of Primary Tumor in Brain Metastases (Open Table in a new window)

Primary Tumor Site

Percentage (%)







Lymphoma, mainly non-Hodgkin


GI tract


Genitourinary tract




Head and neck



Primary lung tumors account for 50% of all metastatic brain tumors. Lung cancer is the most common origin of metastatic disease. Of lung cancer patients who survive for more than 2 years, 80% will have brain metastases.

The average time interval between the diagnosis of primary lung cancer and brain metastases is 4 months. Interestingly, small cell carcinomas, which are only 20% of all lung cancers, account for 50% of brain metastases from lung cancer. In a retrospective study, 6.8% of the first cancer recurrence was in the brain.

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