Brain Metastases vs. Brain Tumors: What’s the Difference?

Brain metastases are a unique type of brain tumor and should be treated by a specialist.

  • They arise from other cancers in the body and spread to the brain.
  • They are not made up of brain cells.
  • They may be found before your primary cancer and require a biopsy.
  • Treatment options include traditional surgery, Gamma Knife radiosurgery, and whole-brain radiation therapy.

Read on to learn more about brain metastases vs brain tumors.

Learning More About Your Condition

After diagnosis, taking the time to learn about your brain tumor and what to expect during the treatment process is a fantastic way to set your mind at ease. Patients diagnosed with brain metastases tend to ask, “What’s the difference between brain metastases vs. brain tumors?” The short answer is that brain metastases are a type of brain tumor, but they do have characteristics that make them unique.

The following information will help you understand these differences and will also touch on diagnosing and treating brain metastases.

Brain Metastases vs. Brain Tumors

The major difference between brain metastases vs. brain tumors is the tissue of origin and how the conditions develop. A primary brain tumor is a condition such as a glioma or vestibular schwannoma, which is made up of cells that naturally occur within the brain. In contrast, brain metastases are made up of cancer cells from another site in the body, like the lung or breast. These cells spread (metastasize) from elsewhere in the body and have grown into tumors in the brain.

Because brain metastases occur with other cancers in the body, it is important to work with a team of specialists who can manage your care. There are specialists available in the NJ area who have experience in treating brain metastases who will work with the rest of your oncology team to ensure you receive the most effective treatment for your individual condition. The first step in the process is obtaining a diagnosis to determine what type of brain tumor you have.

Diagnosing Brain Metastases

Some patients are already aware they have cancer in another site of the body when diagnosed with brain metastases. However, the brain metastases may be discovered first, requiring a biopsy to learn what types of cells make up the tumors. A biopsy is the surgical removal of a portion of your tumor, which will be sent to a pathologist to examine under a microscope. The pathologist will write a report describing the characteristics if your brain metastases, allowing your doctor to make a definitive diagnosis.

Moving Forward with Treatment

Once your diagnosis is confirmed, your team will be able to work with you as you move forward with your brain metastases treatment. Because brain metastases can be variable in cell type, size, location and number of tumors, it is important to work with an experienced team in the tri-state area who can develop a treatment plan based on your individual needs. Potential treatment options include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy, including Gamma Knife radiosurgery.


Some brain metastases may respond to chemotherapy, though this depends on the specific types of cells that make up your tumor. Many drugs have difficulty reaching the brain because of the body’s protective blood-brain barrier, so not all brain metastases will be treatable using chemotherapy. Chemotherapeutic drugs also tend to have severe side effects and are typically not the first line of treatment.


Your doctor may recommend surgical removal, or resection, of all or part of your brain metastases. This may be the case if you have a large tumor that cannot be treated by other means or if your tumor is in an easily accessible location. However, brain metastases must always be treated with some form of radiation therapy following surgery to ensure all of the cancer cells have been eradicated.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy includes Gamma Knife radiosurgery and whole brain radiation therapy. While whole brain radiation therapy doses the entire brain and can cause unpleasant side effects, Gamma Knife radiosurgery is an advanced form of radiation therapy that allows your doctor to treat just your tumor while sparing the normal surrounding brain. The result is fewer unpleasant side effects and a quicker recovery, as well as fewer overall treatment sessions.

Radiation therapy can be used alone or following surgery, as described above. Gamma Knife radiosurgery can be an excellent choice for patients in northern NJ who have small brain metastases or tumors in a difficult-to-reach area. Gamma Knife radiosurgery is also a treatment option for patients who are unable to undergo surgery due to complicating health conditions, such as advanced age.

Your Treatment Path

There are some differences between brain tumors vs. brain metastases and it is important to work with specialists in the tri-state area to manage your care. Because your brain metastases are a result of cancer elsewhere your body, your treatment path may not be the same as the next patient. The origin of your brain metastases, as well as its size, location and number of tumors, will dictate which form of treatment will likely provide the best outcome in your specific case.

As you move through the diagnosis phase and into treatment, continue to educate yourself about what to expect. This will help give you control and confidence throughout the process, allowing you to engage in discussions with your personal doctor about how this information relates to your specific case. The peace of mind this knowledge affords you will help you rest easier before, during and after your brain metastases treatment.

Get Your Questions Answered, By a Real Person.

Our Patient Liaison is here to help you understand your next step. After discussing your specific case, she can help you navigate your medical records, answer insurance questions, and connect you with one of our nurses, at no charge to you.

Patient liaisons explain Gamma Knife surgery cost, outcomes, etc.