Diagnosis of Metastatic Brain Cancer

Neuroradiologist Robert Young looks at a computer screen.

Experts, such as neuroradiologist Robert Young, evaluate brain tumors that have spread from other parts of the body.

Brain tumors can be challenging to diagnose. Not only do they cause many different kinds of signs and symptoms, but what you experience can sometimes resemble complications of other diseases.

To diagnose brain metastases, your doctor will examine you carefully. He or she will most likely conduct:

  • a neurologic exam
  • a medical history
  • various imaging tests  

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, we use cutting-edge imaging tests to make the most accurate diagnosis. These techniques, including MRI, allow us to see very detailed images of brain tissue and find small tumors that CT scans may miss. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) helps us map areas of your brain, including centers of speech and motor function. It provides a clear picture of your condition before we develop a customized care plan for you.

The Role of Imaging
Our doctors use advanced imaging tests, such as CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans, to help detect and diagnose disease, make appropriate treatment recommendations, and monitor your response to therapy.

Spinal Tap & Biopsy

We may recommend you undergo a spinal tap, also called a lumbar puncture. This gives your pathologist a sample of your spinal fluid to examine under a microscope. Spinal taps can be especially useful in helping to diagnose a type of cancer in which tumor cells invade the cerebrospinal fluid called neoplastic meningitis. Learn more about this procedure.

In rare instances we take a biopsy (a sample of the tumor) to diagnose a metastatic brain tumor. To do a biopsy, one of our surgeons removes a small tissue sample from the affected area in your brain. A pathologist then examines the sample under a microscope for signs of cancer.

Remote Opinions from Neurosurgeons at MSK
When you’re diagnosed with cancer, seeking a second opinion is an important step.