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The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). CNS tumors may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). But even benign CNS tumors can cause severe problems or death.
Tumors that begin in the brain are called primary brain tumors. They may spread to other areas of the brain or spinal cord, but they do not usually spread to other parts of the body.
Brain tumors may also come from tumor cells that have spread from other parts of the body. These are called metastatic or secondary brain tumors. These tumors are named for the part of the body where they began. Secondary brain tumors are rare in children.
About half of all pediatric brain tumors are gliomas or astrocytomas. They form from glial cells. These cells make up the supportive tissue of the brain. Gliomas may be benign or malignant and can occur in different areas of the brain and the spinal cord.
The most common malignant brain tumor in children is medulloblastoma. This cancer forms in the cerebellum, in a region of the brain known as the posterior fossa.
Other types of childhood brain tumors include:
Many types of tumors form in the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms can vary widely. The symptoms depend on where the tumor is located, its size, how fast it grows, and the child’s age and stage of development.
Many childhood CNS tumors grow slowly. The symptoms may be mild. They may come and go. They might not follow a typical or predictable pattern.
Symptoms of brain tumors include:
Symptoms of spinal cord tumors include:
In some cases, a child with a brain or spinal cord tumor may have problems reaching early developmental milestones for their age. Talk to your child’s care team if you have questions about your child’s development.
Symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors can be mild and hard to recognize at first. Early symptoms are often similar to other childhood illnesses. Depending on the type of tumor and how fast it grows, diagnosis can sometimes take a while. Diagnosis usually includes:
Treatments depend on the tumor type and location, the child’s age, and how much of the tumor can be removed with surgery.
Most patients who have brain surgery take steroid medicines to reduce brain swelling. Some patients may take anti-seizure medicines.
Your child may need services to help with recovery after surgery. These may include rehabilitation and supportive care including help with vision, speech, hearing, strength, and movement. Psychology and school support services can help with emotional, social, developmental, and learning needs.
The prognosis for brain and spinal cord tumors depends on many factors. These include:
The average survival rate for pediatric cancers of the brain and spinal cord is about 75% in the United States. But the prognosis can vary widely based on cancer type. Talk to your child's care team about your child’s prognosis.
The impact of a brain tumor on a child’s quality of life varies widely. Some patients have few lasting effects on health and function after treatment. Other children may have long-term problems in physical, cognitive, and emotional functioning. These problems may be due to the tumor or the late effects of treatment.
Rehabilitation services can help improve daily living skills after a brain tumor. These services may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, vision assistance, and hearing care.
Patients treated for brain tumors should be monitored for changes or problems in functioning. These may include the onset of seizures or changes in:
Psychological services can help with emotional, social, developmental, and cognitive needs. Patients often need extra support for return to school. A neuropsychological assessment before and after treatment can help families identify education needs. Talk to your child’s care team about testing and academic needs.
Simple lifestyle habits can help brain health and improve overall health.
Childhood cancer survivors should get long-term follow-up health care. Some treatments can cause late effects. These are health problems that happen months or years after treatment has ended.
It is important to have regular checkups and screenings by a primary health care provider. Your child should get a survivorship care plan after completing treatment. This plan includes guidance on health screenings, disease risk factors, and how to improve health. Survivors should share this plan with their health care providers.
Reviewed: August 2023