What is a brain tumor?

Brain and spinal cord tumors are a common type of childhood cancer, making up about 20 percent of all pediatric cancers. Brain and spine tumors are diseases where abnormal cells form in the brain and/or spine such as central nervous system (CNS). Some are more aggressive and spread through the brain and spine. The cells that spread are called malignant. Brain tumors can also be slow-growing and not malignant, but may become problematic when occupying small spaces in the brain. There is no known cause of these tumors.

Pediatric brain tumors are different from adult brain tumors, and the signs and symptoms of pediatric brain tumors differ from patient to patient. Pediatric brain tumors often act differently than adult brain tumors, and treatments of pediatric brain tumors are different, as well.

Types of tumors

Tumor types and classifications are sorted according to the tumor’s cell structure, how fast it grows, its composition, and other factors. As the tumor changes over time, its name and classification may change, as well.

Some types of brain tumors found in children include:

  • Astrocytoma (low grade, high grade, pilocytic and pilomyxoid astrocytoma, anaplastic astrocytoma, glioblastoma)
  • Choroid plexus tumors
  • Craniopharyngioma
  • Embryonal tumors (medulloblastoma, primitive neuroectodermal tumor (PNET), atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor (ATRT), Pineoblastoma)
  • Ependymoma
  • Germ cell tumor
  • Glioma (optic nerve glioma, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) and tectal glioma)
  • Meningioma
  • Schwannoma, neurofibroma, plexiform neurofibroma

What are the symptoms of brain tumors?

Signs and symptoms of brain tumors will vary according to many factors: where the tumor has formed; the size of the tumor; how fast the tumor is growing; and the child’s age and development.

Some common symptoms of primary brain tumors are:

  • Abnormal eye movement
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting
  • Headache in the morning or one that goes away after vomiting
  • Head tilt
  • Increase in the head size of infants
  • Loss of balance and trouble walking
  • Memory problems
  • Seizures
  • Unusual sleepiness or change in activity level
  • Unusual changes in personality or behavior
  • Vision, hearing, and speech problems

Some common symptoms of primary spinal cord tumors are:

  • Back pain or pain that spreads from the back to the arms or legs
  • Change in bowel habits or trouble urinating
  • Trouble walking
  • Weakness in the legs or arms

What is the treatment for brain and spinal tumors?

Most pediatric brain tumors are treated through surgery. If a brain tumor is suspected, doctors may schedule a biopsy to remove a sample of tissue for testing. The biopsy is done by removing a section of the skull and using a needle to remove a tissue sample, and then a pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope, looking for abnormal cells. If the tissue contains tumor cells, the doctor may remove as much of the tumor as possible during the same surgery.


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