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Childhood Central Nervous System Embryonal Tumors Treatment (PDQ®)

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for children who have central nervous system (CNS) embryonal tumors.

Different types of treatment are available for children with central nervous system (CNS) embryonal tumors. 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 who have CNS embryonal tumors should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers who are experts in treating brain tumors in children.

Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other pediatric health care 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 the cancer is diagnosed and 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).

Children diagnosed with medulloblastoma may have certain problems after surgery or radiation therapy such as changes in the ability to think, learn, and pay attention. Also, cerebellar mutism syndrome may occur after surgery. Signs of this syndrome include the following:

  • Delayed ability to speak.
  • Trouble swallowing and eating.
  • Loss of balance, trouble walking, and worsening handwriting.
  • Loss of muscle tone.
  • Mood swings and changes in personality.

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).

Four types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery is used to diagnose and treat a childhood CNS embryonal tumor as described in the General Information section of this summary.

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

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 uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.

Radiation therapy to the brain can affect growth and development in young children. For this reason, clinical trials are studying new ways of giving radiation that may have fewer side effects than standard methods. For childhood CNS embryonal tumors, radiation therapy may be given in the following ways:

  • Conformal radiation therapy uses a computer to make a 3-dimensional (3-D) picture of the tumor and the radiation beams are shaped 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.
  • Stereotactic radiation therapy uses a rigid head frame attached to the skull to aim radiation directly to a 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.

The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type of cancer being treated.

Because radiation therapy can affect growth and brain development in young children, especially children who are three years old or younger, chemotherapy may be given 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 treatment using more than one anticancer drug. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type of cancer being treated.

Regular dose anticancer drugs given by mouth or vein to treat central nervous system tumors cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Instead, an anticancer drug is injected into the fluid-filled space to kill cancer cells that may have spread there. This is called intrathecal or intraventricular chemotherapy.

Intrathecal chemotherapy; drawing shows the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain and spinal cord, and an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). Top section shows a syringe and needle injecting anticancer drugs into the Ommaya reservoir. Bottom section shows a syringe and needle injecting anticancer drugs directly into the cerebrospinal fluid in the lower part of the spinal column.
Intrathecal chemotherapy. Anticancer drugs are injected into the intrathecal space, which is the space that holds the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, shown in blue). There are two different ways to do this. One way, shown in the top part of the figure, is to inject the drugs into an Ommaya reservoir (a dome-shaped container that is placed under the scalp during surgery; it holds the drugs as they flow through a small tube into the brain). The other way, shown in the bottom part of the figure, is to inject the drugs directly into the CSF in the lower part of the spinal column, after a small area on the lower back is numbed.


High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue 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.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

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. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the imaging tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your child's condition has changed or if the brain tumor has recurred (come back). If the imaging tests show abnormal tissue in the brain, a biopsy may also be done to find out if the tissue is made up of dead tumor cells or if new cancer cells are growing. These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

  • Updated: December 11, 2014