CNS complications of breast cancer: current and emerging treatment options

CNS Drugs. 2007;21(7):559-79. doi: 10.2165/00023210-200721070-00003.


In general, the development of CNS metastases of breast cancer depends on several prognostic factors, including younger age and a negative hormone receptor status. Also, the presence of a breast cancer 1, early onset (BRCA1) germline mutation and expression of the human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (Her2/neu) proto-oncogene seem to contribute to an increased rate of development of CNS metastases. The choice of appropriate therapy for brain metastases also depends on prognostic factors, including the age of the patient, the Karnofsky performance score, the number of brain metastases and the presence of systemic disease. Surgery followed by whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT) is generally restricted to ambulant patients with a single brain metastasis without active extracranial disease. In patients who have two to four metastases, stereotactic focal radiotherapy (i.e. radiosurgery) with or without WBRT is usually indicated. In the remainder of patients, WBRT alone provides adequate palliation. Although breast carcinoma is sensitive to chemotherapy, the role of chemotherapy in the treatment of brain metastases is still unclear. Objective responses after cyclophosphamide-based therapies were reported in studies performed in the 1980s. Subgroup analysis of data from a randomised study indicates that survival may improve if WBRT is combined with the radiosensitiser efaproxiral. Interestingly, the Her2/neu antibody trastuzumab, which does not cross the blood-brain barrier, produces systemic responses and enhanced survival, without a clear effect on brain metastases. Breast cancer constitutes the most common solid primary tumour leading to leptomeningeal disease. Clinical symptoms such as cranial nerve dysfunction or a cauda equina syndrome can be treated with local radiotherapy. A randomised study in patients with leptomeningeal disease secondary to breast cancer has revealed that intrathecal chemotherapy is associated with substantially more adverse effects than non-intrathecal treatment, without a clear benefit in terms of response or survival. Intramedullary metastasis is rare but often presents with a rapidly progressive myelopathy. Local radiotherapy may preserve neurological function. Epidural spinal cord metastasis occurs in approximately 4% of patients and can lead to paraplegia. A randomised study has shown that surgical intervention together with local radiotherapy is superior to local radiotherapy alone.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Brain Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Brain Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Brain Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Brain Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Brain Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Meningeal Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Meningeal Neoplasms / secondary
  • Meningeal Neoplasms / therapy
  • Risk Factors
  • Spinal Cord Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Spinal Cord Neoplasms / secondary
  • Spinal Cord Neoplasms / therapy


  • Antineoplastic Agents