Brain Tumors (Pediatric)

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What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a mass or group of abnormal cells that grow in the brain. Brain tumors may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Different types of brain tumors have different names, based on where in the brain they are located and what kind of tissue they are in. The cause of most brain tumors is unknown.

If they are not managed, brain tumors can destroy the brain cells with which they come into contact. They can also indirectly damage brain cells by pushing on other parts of the brain. This leads to swelling and increased pressure inside the skull.

Children with brain tumors may have symptoms that are not easy to detect and which only gradually become worse, or they may have symptoms that occur very quickly. Headaches are often the most common symptom and get worse when the child wakes up in the morning, when he or she exercises, or with certain changes in body position. These headaches are often are accompanied by vomiting or confusion.

Other symptoms include:

  • personality and behavior changes
  • memory loss
  • difficulty with speech
  • gradual loss of movement or feeling in an arm or leg
  • problems with balance and weakness or numbness

Symptoms may be different in each child.

Our approach to brain tumors

Detecting a brain tumor usually begins with a physical and neurological examination of a child who has shown one or more of the symptoms listed above.

The health care provider may also use the following tests to find a brain tumor and where it is located: CT and MRI of the head and spine, PET scan, and/or examination of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

Treatment depends on the size and type of tumor and the child’s general health. The goals of treatment may be to cure the tumor, or to relieve symptoms and improve the child’s comfort.

Surgery is usually needed for most primary brain tumors. Some tumors may be completely removed; in cases where the tumor cannot be removed, the health care provider may suggest surgery that may help reduce pressure and relieve symptoms, such as pain. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be also used for certain tumors.

Medications may be used such as corticosteroids, anticonvulsants to reduce or prevent seizures, and pain medications. In order to improve quality of life, the health care provider may recommend treatments to make the child more comfortable, ways to make the child’s environment safe from falls or other dangers, and physical and/or occupational therapy to help the child function as well as he or she can.

The outlook for children with brain tumors depends on many things, including the exact type and location of the tumor and whether the tumor may be surgically removed safely. In general, the outlook for children with brain tumors is improving and about 3 of 4 children survive at least 5 years after being diagnosed.