When Your Child Has a Brain Tumor

When Your Child Has a Brain Tumor

The brain is part of the body's nervous system. Your child's ability to think, learn, speak, feel emotion, and reason are all controlled by the brain. The brain also controls basic body functions such as movement, sensation, breathing, and heartbeat. A brain tumor can affect your child's brain function and threaten his or her overall health. Any changes in personality or behavior should be brought to the attention of your child's healthcare provider. For younger children, any loss of developmental milestones, such as crawling, standing, or walking, will need to be addressed.

If your child is found to have a brain injury, your child's healthcare provider will help you understand the specific type of brain tumor your child has and tell you more about treatment options for your child.

What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a mass of abnormal cells in the brain. It can have the following characteristics:

  • A tumor can be primary (started in the brain). Or, a tumor can be metastatic (a cancer that traveled to the brain from another part of the body). In children, primary tumors are much more common than metastatic tumors.
  • A tumor can be benign or malignant. Most benign tumors are made up of slow-growing cells that rarely spread. The cells are not likely to be cancerous. Most malignant tumors are made up of fast-growing cells that invade surrounding tissue. The cells are more likely to be cancerous. Both benign and malignant tumors can be life threatening and can require intensive treatment.

What are the risk factors for a brain tumor?

Brain tumors can occur randomly in children of all ethnicities and ages. Children with certain genetic conditions, such as neurofibromatosis, are more likely to develop tumors than others. Radiation to the head (such as treatment for another cancer) can also cause brain tumors.

What are the symptoms of a brain tumor?

A brain tumor can affect each child differently. Common symptoms of a brain tumor include:

  • Recurrent headaches
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty walking
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Problems with vision, speech, concentration, balance, coordination, or movement
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Paralysis, weakness, or numbness in one part or side of the body
  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Rapid increase in head size in infants

How as a brain tumor diagnosed?

Your child will likely see a pediatric neurologist or a pediatric neurosurgeon for diagnosis and treatment. These are doctors who specialize in neurologic problems. In addition, other specialists and healthcare providers may be involved in your child's care.

To confirm the diagnosis of a tumor, the doctor does an evaluation. This includes taking a detailed health history. You'll be asked to describe your child's symptoms and any health problems. The following tests may also be done:

  • Neurologic exam to check how well your child's nervous system is working. During the exam, the doctor checks your child's muscle strength, balance, coordination, and reflexes. He or she may also check skills such as thinking and memory, vision, hearing, and talking.
  • MRI or CT scan to provide detailed pictures of the brain. These help the doctor determine tumor size and location. With either test, fluid called contrast dye may be injected into a vein beforehand to make a tumor easier to see.
  • Stereotactic biopsy to learn more about the tumor type and whether it is benign or malignant. During this procedure, a small sample of tumor tissue is taken for lab testing. The tumor is analyzed and given a grade. The grade is based on how abnormal the tumor cells look. It gives an idea of how fast new tumor cells are forming and how quickly they are spreading into surrounding tissue.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid exam (also called a lumbar puncture or spinal tap) to help determine whether the tumor has spread.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan) a procedure that uses a radioactive glucose solution to find malignant tumor cells. The scanner rotates around the body and looks for the areas that take up sugar. Tumors take up more sugar and look brighter on the scan.

How is a brain tumor treated?

Treatment for a brain tumor varies for every child. Each treatment also carries possible risks and complications. Your child's doctor will discuss specific treatments with you. Possible treatments include:

  • Surgery to remove a tumor to the extent possible.
  • Chemotherapy to treat tumor cells with medications. One medication or a combination may be given. The medications can be taken orally (by mouth) or by IV (injection into a blood vessel). In some cases, they can be injected directly into the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Chemotherapy is often used along with other treatments. It is given in cycles to allow the body to rest and build new healthy cells between treatments.
  • Radiation to destroy tumor cells with X-ray beams. There are two types of radiation: focused and whole brain. With focused radiation, X-ray beams are aimed at the tumor and the area around it. With whole-brain radiation, X-ray beams are used on the entire brain. This method is more commonly used to treat multiple tumors. In addition to traditional radiation, stereotactic radiosurgery may also be used. It involves directing several high doses of radiation to a specific area in the brain from different angles with the aid of specialized equipment.

Many children will get more than one type of treatment.

What are the long-term concerns?

The outcome of your child's condition depends on many factors such as age, overall health, and the tumor type, size, and location. Some long-term concerns may be related to the extent of radiation therapy and whether it is localized or includes the whole brain and spinal cord. In recent years, more and more childhood brain tumors have become treatable. Your child's doctor will work closely with you to make sure your child get the best care.

Coping with your child's condition

If your child has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, know that your family doesn't have to go through this alone. A positive outlook helps while supporting your child. Consider counseling, which can help you and your child deal with any fears and concerns. And seek help and comfort from your friends, community resources, and support groups. The more you learn about your child's condition and its treatments, the more in control you may feel. For more information about brain tumors, contact the following organizations:

  • Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation,
  • American Cancer Society,
  • Children's Oncology Group (COG),