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 signs or symptoms and need treatment.
Together, the brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS).
The brain has three major parts:
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, such as a message from the brain to cause muscles to move or a message from the skin to the brain to feel touch.
Although cancer is rare in children, brain and spinal cord tumors are the second most common type of childhood cancer, after leukemia. 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 Central Nervous System 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.
Signs and symptoms depend on the following:
Signs and symptoms may be caused by childhood brain and spinal cord tumors or by other conditions, including cancer that has spread to the brain. Check with your child's doctor if your child has any of the following:
Brain Tumor Signs and Symptoms
Spinal Cord Tumor Signs and Symptoms
In addition to these signs and 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.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
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.
The following test may be done on the sample of tissue that is removed:
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.
The prognosis depends on the following:
Staging is the process used to find how much cancer there is and if cancer has spread within the brain, spinal cord, or to other parts of the body. It is important to know the stage in order to plan cancer treatment.
After the tumor is removed in surgery, some of the tests used to detect childhood brain and spinal cord tumors are repeated to help determine the tumor risk group (see the General Information section). This is to find out how much tumor remains after surgery.
Other tests and procedures may be done to find out if cancer has spread:
Childhood brain and spinal cord tumors may recur (come back) in the same place or in another part of the brain. Sometimes they come back in another part of the body. The tumor may come back many years after first being treated. Diagnostic and staging tests and procedures, including biopsy, may be done to make sure that the tumor has recurred.
Different types of treatment are available for children with brain and spinal cord 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. Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other 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 and spinal cord tumors may cause signs or symptoms that continue for months or years. Signs or symptoms caused by the tumor may begin before diagnosis. Signs or symptoms caused by treatment may begin during or right after treatment.
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). Although most cannot, some chemotherapy drugs can cross the blood-brain barrier and reach tumor cells in the brain. When chemotherapy is placed directly in the cerebrospinal fluid, it is called intrathecal chemotherapy. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and grade of tumor and where it is in the brain or spinal cord.
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 website.
High doses of chemotherapy are given to kill cancer cells. Healthy cells, including blood-forming cells, are also destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cell transplant is a treatment to replace the blood-forming cells. 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 patient completes chemotherapy, 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.
Side effects from cancer treatment that begin after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include the following:
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).
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.
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. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI’s clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. 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.
Some of the 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 cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.
The brain is made of different kinds of cells. Childhood brain tumors are grouped and treated based on the type of cell the cancer formed in and where the tumor began growing in the CNS. Some types of tumors are divided into subtypes based on how the tumor looks under a microscope and whether it has certain gene changes. See Table 1 for a list of tumor types and staging and treatment information for newly diagnosed and recurrent childhood brain tumors.
|Tumor Type||Tumor Subtype||Related PDQ Treatment Summary|
|NOS = not otherwise specified; WHO = World Health Organization.|
|Astrocytomas and Other Tumors of Glial Origin|
|– Low-Grade Astrocytomas||Angiocentric glioma||See Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment for information on low-grade astrocytomas.|
|Choroid glioma of the third ventricle|
|Diffuse astrocytoma, IDH-mutant, IDH-wild type, or NOS|
|Subependymal giant cell astrocytoma|
|– High-Grade Astrocytomas||Anaplastic astrocytoma, IDH-mutant or IDH-wild type||See Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment for information on high-grade astrocytomas.|
|Anaplastic pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma|
|Diffuse midline glioma, H3 K27M-mutant|
|– Other Astrocytomas or Gliomas||Astroblastoma||See Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment for information on other astrocytomas or gliomas.|
|Brain Stem Glioma|
|Diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas, H3 K27M-mutant||See Childhood Brain Stem Glioma Treatment.|
|Focal or low-grade brain stem gliomas|
|Central Nervous System Embryonal Tumors|
|– Medulloblastoma||See Childhood Medulloblastoma and Other Central Nervous System Embryonal Tumors Treatment for information on medulloblastoma and nonmedulloblastomas.|
|– Nonmedulloblastomas||Central nervous system ganglioneuroblastoma|
|Central nervous system neuroblastoma|
|Embryonal tumor with multilayered rosettes, C19MC-altered or NOS|
|– Central Nervous System Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor||See Childhood Central Nervous System Atypical Teratoid/Rhabdoid Tumor Treatment.|
|Tumors of the Pineal Region||Pineoblastoma||See Childhood Medulloblastoma and Other Central Nervous System Embryonal Tumors Treatment.|
|Central Nervous System Germ Cell Tumors|
|– Germinomas||See Childhood Central Nervous System Germ Cell Tumors Treatment.|
|– Teratomas||Immature teratomas|
|Teratomas with malignant transformation|
|– Non-germinomatous Germ Cell Tumors||Choriocarcinoma|
|Mixed germ cell tumors|
|Yolk sac tumor|
|Craniopharyngioma||See Childhood Craniopharyngioma Treatment.|
|Subependymoma (WHO grade I)||See Childhood Ependymoma Treatment.|
|Myxopapillary ependymoma (WHO grade I)|
|Ependymoma (WHO grade II)|
|RELA fusion-positive ependymoma (WHO grade II or grade III)|
|Anaplastic ependymoma (WHO grade III)|
|Tumors of the Choroid Plexus|
Tumors of many different cell types may form in the spinal cord. Low-grade spinal cord tumors usually do not spread. High-grade spinal cord tumors may spread to other places in the spinal cord or to the brain. See the following PDQ summaries for more information on staging and treatment of newly diagnosed and recurrent childhood spinal cord tumors:
For more information about childhood brain and spinal cord tumors, see the following:
For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources, see the following:
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PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/patient/child-brain-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389351]
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