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Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment (PDQ®)

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with childhood astrocytoma.

Different types of treatment are available for children with astrocytomas. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Children with astrocytomas should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers who are experts in treating childhood brain tumors.

Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other healthcare providers who are experts in treating children with brain tumors and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:

Childhood brain tumors may cause signs or symptoms that begin before the cancer is diagnosed and continue for months or years.

Signs or symptoms caused by the tumor may begin before diagnosis. These signs or symptoms may continue for months or years. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about signs or symptoms caused by the tumor that may continue after treatment.

Some cancer treatments cause side effects months or years after treatment has ended.

Side effects from cancer treatment that begin during or after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include the following:

  • Physical problems.
  • Changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory.
  • Second cancers (new types of cancer).

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the effects cancer treatment can have on your child. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information.)

Six types of treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery is used to diagnose and treat childhood astrocytoma as discussed in the General Information section of this summary. If cancer cells remain after surgery, further treatment depends on:

  • Where the remaining cancer cells are.
  • The grade of the tumor.
  • The age of the child.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that remain. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Observation

Observation is closely monitoring a patient’s condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change. Observation is often used for patients who have neurofibromatosis type1 or a tumor that is not growing and spreading.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:

External radiation therapy is used to treat astrocytoma in children. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type of tumor and where the tumor formed in the brain or spinal cord.

Radiation therapy to the brain can affect growth and development in young children. Certain ways of giving radiation therapy can lessen the damage to healthy brain tissue:

  • Conformal radiation therapy uses a computer to make a 3-dimensional (3-D) picture of the tumor and shapes the radiation beams to fit the tumor. This allows a high dose of radiation to reach the tumor and causes less damage to normal tissue around the tumor.
  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) uses images created by a computer that show the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different strengths are aimed at the tumor from many angles.
  • Stereotactic radiation therapy uses a rigid head frame attached to the skull to aim radiation directly to the tumor, causing less damage to normal tissue around the tumor. The total dose of radiation is divided into several smaller doses given over several days. This procedure is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.

For children younger than 3 years, chemotherapy may be given instead, to delay or reduce the need for radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is the use of more than one anticancer drug.

Systemic chemotherapy is used in the treatment of children with astrocytoma. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type of tumor and where the tumor formed in the brain or spinal cord.

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is a way of giving high doses of chemotherapy and replacing blood -forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.

For high-grade astrocytoma that has come back after treatment, high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is used if there is only a small amount of tumor.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.

There are different types of targeted therapy:

  • Kinase inhibitors stop cells from dividing and may prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow. Everolimus and sirolimus are kinase inhibitors used to treat childhood subependymal giant cell astrocytomas.
  • Monoclonal antibody therapy uses antibodies made in the laboratory, from a single type of immune system cell, to stop cancer cells. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion into a vein. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells. Bevacizumab is a type of monoclonal antibody being used to treat of childhood astrocytoma.
  • Protein kinase inhibitors block proteins needed for cell growth and may kill cancer cells. Selumetinib is a type of protein kinase inhibitor being studied in the treatment of childhood astrocytoma.

See Drugs Approved for Brain Tumors for more information.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Other drug therapy

Lenalidomide is a type of angiogenesis inhibitor. It prevents the growth of new blood vessels that are needed by a tumor to grow.

If fluid builds up around the brain and spinal cord, a cerebrospinal fluid diversion procedure may be done.

Cerebrospinal fluid diversion is a method used to drain fluid that has built up around the brain and spinal cord. A shunt (long, thin tube) is placed in a ventricle (fluid-filled space) of the brain and threaded under the skin to another part of the body, usually the abdomen. The shunt carries extra fluid away from the brain so it may be absorbed elsewhere in the body.

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) diversion; drawing shows extra CSF flowing through a tube (shunt) from a ventricle in the brain into the abdomen. The shunt goes from the ventricle, under the skin in the neck and chest, and into the abdomen. Also shown is a valve that controls the flow of CSF.
Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) diversion. Extra CSF is removed from a ventricle in the brain through a shunt (tube) and is emptied into the abdomen. A valve controls the flow of CSF.


Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. (See the General Information section for a list of tests.) Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Regular MRIs will continue to be done after treatment has ended. The results of the MRI can show if your child's condition has changed or if the astrocytoma has recurred (come back). If the results of the MRI show a mass in the brain, a biopsy may be done to find out if it is made up of dead tumor cells or if new cancer cells are growing.

  • Updated: November 14, 2014