Cerebrovascular complications of cancer

Fernando Testai MD PhD (Dr. Testai of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago received research grants from Dart NeuroScience, the NIH, and the American Heart Association and consulting fees from Medico-legal Consulting.)
Vinny Sharma DO (Dr. Sharma of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Rimas V Lukas MD, editor. (Dr. Lukas of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine received honorariums from AstraZeneca as an advisory board member and AbbVie as a guest speaker and advisory board member.)
Originally released September 7, 1994; last updated May 6, 2018; expires May 6, 2021


Cerebrovascular disease (sinus thrombosis, cerebral infarction, or hemorrhage) is a common complication of cancer and of cancer therapy. In this article, the authors review the clinical milieu in which these disorders develop and summarize the methods of diagnosis, including characteristic abnormalities of clinical findings, coagulation function tests, and neuroimaging. The management of these vascular disorders can be challenging in this patient population because of comorbidities associated with cancer. Some vascular disorders are unique to the cancer patient, including radiation-induced carotid artery atherosclerosis and chemotherapy-induced vasculopathy. Until recently, reports of these latter conditions were anecdotal and infrequent.

Key points


• Cancer is a hypercoagulable state leading to an increased risk of venous and arterial thromboembolic events.


• Cancer therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy have a range of adverse effects upon the CNS vasculature.


• Patients with cancer are also at risk for intracranial hemorrhage from a variety of factors including thrombocytopenia, coagulopathy, hemorrhagic brain metastases, and hematological malignancies.

Historical note and terminology

In the mid-1800s, Armand Trousseau first drew attention to the clinical association between thrombophlebitis and cancer. Subsequently, clinicians observed that thrombophlebitis is only 1 manifestation of a coagulopathy associated with cancer, which represents a disruption of the delicate balance that normally exists between hemorrhage and coagulation. This coagulopathy is poorly understood, and its mechanism is controversial. Disseminated intravascular coagulation is generally defined as excess thrombin generation within the vasculature that overwhelms normal regulatory hemostatic mechanisms. This results in increased consumption of platelets, coagulation factors, and sometimes inhibitors of coagulation. Defibrination syndrome and consumption coagulopathy are alternate terms for disseminated intravascular coagulation.

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