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Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 04/03/2014

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General Information About Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors



A childhood brain or spinal cord tumor is a disease in which abnormal cells form in the tissues of the brain or spinal cord.

There are many types of childhood brain and spinal cord tumors. The tumors are formed by the abnormal growth of cells and may begin in different areas of the brain or spinal cord.

The tumors may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Benign brain tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain. They rarely spread into other tissues. Malignant brain tumors are likely to grow quickly and spread into other brain tissue. When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from working the way it should. Both benign and malignant brain tumors can cause symptoms and need treatment.

Together, the brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS).

The brain controls many important body functions.

The brain has three major parts:

  • The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It is at the top of the head. The cerebrum controls thinking, learning, problem solving, emotions, speech, reading, writing, and voluntary movement.
  • The cerebellum is in the lower back of the brain (near the middle of the back of the head). It controls movement, balance, and posture.
  • The brain stem connects the brain to the spinal cord. It is in the lowest part of the brain (just above the back of the neck). The brain stem controls breathing, heart rate, and the nerves and muscles used in seeing, hearing, walking, talking, and eating.
Anatomy of the brain, showing the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, and other parts of the brain.Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the pineal and pituitary glands, optic nerve, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), and other parts of the brain.

The spinal cord connects the brain with nerves in most parts of the body.

The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that runs from the brain stem down the center of the back. It is covered by three thin layers of tissue called membranes. These membranes are surrounded by the vertebrae (back bones). Spinal cord nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. For example, a signal from the brain causes muscles to move or the skin sends a signal to the brain when touched.

Brain and spinal cord tumors are a common type of childhood cancer.

Although cancer is rare in children, brain and spinal cord tumors are the third most common type of childhood cancer, after leukemia and lymphoma. Brain tumors can occur in both children and adults. Treatment for children is usually different than treatment for adults. (See the PDQ summary on Adult Brain Tumors Treatment for more information about the treatment of adults.)

This summary describes the treatment of primary brain and spinal cord tumors (tumors that begin in the brain and spinal cord). Treatment of metastatic brain and spinal cord tumors is not covered in this summary. Metastatic tumors are formed by cancer cells that begin in other parts of the body and spread to the brain or spinal cord.

The cause of most childhood brain and spinal cord tumors is unknown.

The symptoms of childhood brain and spinal cord tumors are not the same in every child.

Headaches and other symptoms may be caused by childhood brain and spinal cord tumors. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with a doctor if your child has any of the following problems:

Brain Tumor Symptoms

  • Morning headache or headache that goes away after vomiting.
  • Frequent nausea and vomiting.
  • Vision, hearing, and speech problems.
  • Loss of balance and trouble walking.
  • Unusual sleepiness or change in activity level.
  • Unusual changes in personality or behavior.
  • Seizures.
  • Increase in the head size (in infants).

Spinal Cord Tumor Symptoms

  • Back pain or pain that spreads from the back towards the arms or legs.
  • A change in bowel habits or trouble urinating.
  • Weakness in the legs.
  • Trouble walking.

In addition to these symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors, some children are unable to reach certain growth and development milestones such as sitting up, walking, and talking in sentences.

Tests that examine the brain and spinal cord are used to detect (find) childhood brain and spinal cord tumors.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.

  • Neurological exam : A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.

  • Serum tumor marker test : A procedure in which a sample of blood is examined to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the blood. These are called tumor markers.

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) with gadolinium : A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of the brain and spinal cord. A substance called gadolinium is injected into a vein. The gadolinium collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

  • Angiogram : A procedure to look at blood vessels and the flow of blood in the brain. A contrast dye is injected into the blood vessel. As the contrast dye moves through the blood vessel, x-rays are taken to see if there are any blockages.

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.

Most childhood brain tumors are diagnosed and removed in surgery.

If doctors think there might be a brain tumor, a biopsy may be done to remove a sample of tissue. For tumors in the brain, the biopsy is done by removing part of the skull and using a needle to remove a sample of tissue. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor may remove as much tumor as safely possible during the same surgery. The pathologist checks the cancer cells to find out the type and grade of brain tumor. The grade of the tumor is based on how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread.

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Drawing of a craniotomy showing a section of the scalp that has been pulled back to remove a piece of the skull; the dura covering the brain has been opened to expose the brain. The layer of muscle under the scalp is also shown.
Craniotomy: An opening is made in the skull and a piece of the skull is removed to show part of the brain.

The following tests may be done on the sample of tissue that is removed:

  • Immunohistochemistry : A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.

  • Light and electron microscopy : A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under regular and high-powered microscopes to look for certain changes in the cells.

  • Cytogenetic analysis : A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.

Some childhood brain and spinal cord tumors are diagnosed by imaging tests.

Sometimes a biopsy or surgery cannot be done safely because of where the tumor formed in the brain or spinal cord. These tumors are diagnosed based on the results of imaging tests and other procedures.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery).

The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • Whether there are any cancer cells left after surgery.
  • The type of tumor.
  • Where the tumor is in the body.
  • The child's age.
  • Whether the tumor has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).