The cause of astrocytomas is not known.
Children may have difficulty walking, weakness, vision changes, vomiting, and headaches.
Diagnosis usually involves an imaging test and a biopsy.
Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Astrocytomas are the most common central nervous system tumors in children Overview of Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Central nervous system tumors are the second most common cancer in children under 15 years of age (after leukemia) and the... read more , accounting for about 40% of cases. These tumors are usually diagnosed between ages 5 years and 9 years. These tumors can occur anywhere in the brain or spinal cord but are most common in the cerebellum Cerebellum The brain’s functions are both mysterious and remarkable, relying on billions of nerve cells and the internal communication between them. All thoughts, beliefs, memories, behaviors, and moods... read more (the area near the base of the brain that coordinates the body’s movements).
Astrocytomas are a type of brain tumor called a glioma Gliomas Types of brain tumors (see also table Some Tumors That Originate in or Near the Brain) can vary in their characteristics, such as their location, the people they affect most often, and the symptoms... read more .
Symptoms of Astrocytomas
Pressure within the skull increases, causing headaches (often when children first awaken), vomiting, and listlessness. Children may lose their coordination and have difficulty walking. Vision may be blurred or lost, and the eyes may bulge. The child may have nystagmus, in which the eyes involuntarily jerk in one direction, then drift back.
Astrocytomas in the spinal cord may cause back pain, difficulty walking, numbness, and muscle weakness.
Diagnosis of Astrocytomas
Magnetic resonance imaging
Magnetic resonance imaging Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of medical imaging that uses a strong magnetic field and very high frequency radio waves to produce highly detailed images. During an MRI, a computer... read more (MRI) is usually done. Before MRI is done, a contrast agent Radiographic Contrast Agents Radiographic contrast agents are substances used to distinguish between internal structures in medical imaging, such as various types of x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). During imaging... read more is injected into a vein (intravenously). Contrast agents are substances that make organs and other structures clearer to see on imaging tests. If MRI is unavailable, computed tomography Computed Tomography (CT) Computed tomography (CT) is a type of medical imaging that combines a series of x-rays to create cross-sectional, detailed images of internal structures. In computed tomography (CT), which used... read more (CT) is used, but it provides less detail.
Then doctors usually take a sample of tissue from the tumor and examine it under a microscope (biopsy) because treatment is based on how abnormal the tumor cells look (the tumor’s grade). Astrocytomas are typically classified as low grade (for example, pilocytic astrocytoma) or high grade (for example, anaplastic astrocytoma). Grades 1 and 2 tumors are low grade, and grades 3 and 4 tumors are high grade.
Treatment of Astrocytomas
Surgery (if possible)
Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both
(See also Cancer Treatment Principles Cancer Treatment Principles Treating cancer is one of the most complex aspects of medical care. It involves a team that encompasses many types of doctors working together (for example, primary care doctors, gynecologists... read more .)
Most low-grade astrocytomas are surgically removed Surgery for Cancer Surgery is a traditional form of cancer treatment. It is the most effective in eliminating most types of cancer before it has spread to lymph nodes or distant sites (metastasized). Surgery may... read more . If the astrocytoma is completely removed, children may not need any other treatment.
Sometimes, surgery is not possible. Chemotherapy Chemotherapy and Other Systemic Cancer Treatments Systemic treatments are those that have effects throughout the body rather than being applied directly to the cancer. Chemotherapy is a form of systemic treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer... read more is used in children who have a tumor that cannot be removed surgically or that progresses or returns after surgery.
Radiation therapy is rarely used to treat low-grade astrocytomas because it can interfere with growth and brain development.
Most low-grade astrocytomas can be treated successfully, and children can be long-term survivors.
High-grade astrocytomas are treated with a combination of surgery (if possible) and radiation therapy Radiation Therapy for Cancer Radiation is a form of intense energy generated by a radioactive substance, such as cobalt, or by specialized equipment, such as an atomic particle (linear) accelerator. Radiation preferentially... read more (see Combination Cancer Therapy Combination Cancer Therapy Cancer drugs are most effective when given in combination. The rationale for combination therapy is to use drugs that work by different mechanisms, thereby decreasing the likelihood that resistant... read more ). The role of chemotherapy is not clear.
The outlook is worse for children with a high-grade tumor, in whom the overall survival is only 20 to 30% 3 years after treatment.
The following English-language resource may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.
American Cancer Society: If Your Child Is Diagnosed With Cancer: A resource for parents and loved ones of a child who has cancer that provides information about how to cope with some of the problems and questions that come up just after a child is diagnosed