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Overview of Brain Tumors in Children


Renee Gresh

, DO, Nemours A.I. duPont Hospital for Children

Full review/revision Jun 2021 | Modified Sep 2022

Symptoms of Brain Tumors in Children

The first brain tumor symptoms may result from increased pressure within the skull (intracranial pressure). Pressure may be increased because the tumor blocks the flow of cerebrospinal fluid within the brain or because the tumor takes up space. Increased pressure can cause the following:

Other symptoms vary depending on the specific part of the brain in which the tumor is located.

Diagnosis of Brain Tumors in Children

  • Imaging tests

  • Usually biopsy or sometimes surgery to remove the entire tumor

  • Sometimes a spinal tap

Doctors suspect a brain tumor based on symptoms.

To check for a brain tumor, doctors typically do an imaging test such as magnetic resonance imaging Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) In magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a strong magnetic field and very high frequency radio waves are used to produce highly detailed images. MRI does not use x-rays and is usually very safe... read more Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) (MRI), which can usually detect the tumor. Computed tomography Computed Tomography (CT) In computed tomography (CT), which used to be called computed axial tomography (CAT), an x-ray source and x-ray detector rotate around a person. In modern scanners, the x-ray detector usually... read more Computed Tomography (CT) (CT) also can be done. Before MRI or CT is done, a contrast agent is usually injected into a vein (intravenously). Contrast agents are substances that make the images clearer. If a brain tumor is suspected, doctors usually remove a small piece of tissue (biopsy) to confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes, instead of removing a small piece, doctors surgically remove the entire tumor.

Sometimes a spinal tap (lumbar puncture How a Spinal Tap Is Done How a Spinal Tap Is Done ) is done to obtain cerebrospinal fluid for examination under a microscope. This procedure is done routinely to determine whether tumor cells have spread to the cerebrospinal fluid or when the diagnosis is unclear.

Treatment of Brain Tumors in Children

  • Surgical removal of the tumor

  • Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both

  • Drainage of cerebrospinal fluid

Usually, treatment of brain tumors involves surgically removing the tumor 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 . Then, 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 , 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 , or both 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 are used. Treatment should be planned by a team of experts Care team for cancer treatment Cancer is rare among children. In 2021 in the United States, an estimated 10,500 children aged birth to 14 years will be diagnosed with cancer and slightly over 1,100 children will die of it... read more who have experience treating brain tumors in children. The care team may include doctors who specialize in the care and treatment of babies, children, and adolescents such as pediatric cancer specialists (oncologists), pediatric neurologists, pediatric neurosurgeons, and radiation oncologists.

When possible, the tumor is removed surgically by opening the skull (called a craniotomy). Some brain tumors can be removed with little or no damage to the brain. After surgery, MRI may be done to determine whether any of the tumor is left and, if so, how much.

If the tumor cannot be removed surgically, additional treatment is usually required. In children younger than 5 to 10 years, depending on the tumor type, chemotherapy may be used first because radiation therapy can interfere with growth and brain development. If needed, radiation therapy may be used when children are older. Chemotherapy may also have serious side effects.

If the tumor is blocking the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, a small tube (catheter) may be used to drain the cerebrospinal fluid before the tumor is surgically removed. After a local or general anesthetic is used, the tube is inserted through a tiny opening drilled in the skull, and fluid is withdrawn to reduce the pressure within the skull. The tube is connected to a gauge that measures the pressure within the skull. After a few days, the tube is removed or converted to a permanent drain (shunt—see Hydrocephalus Hydrocephalus Hydrocephalus is an accumulation of extra fluid in the normal spaces within the brain (ventricles) and/or between the inner and middle layers of tissues that cover the brain (the subarachnoid... read more Hydrocephalus ).

Because cancer is relatively rare in children, entry into a clinical trial The Science of Medicine Doctors have been treating people for many thousands of years. The earliest written description of medical treatment is from ancient Egypt and is over 3,500 years old. Even before that, healers... read more , if available, should be considered for all children with a brain tumor. In such trials, some children receive the standard treatment, and others receive the treatment being tested (called experimental treatment). The experimental treatment may involve new drugs, drugs used in new ways, or new surgical or radiation techniques. However, experimental treatments are not always effective, and side effects or complications may not be known.

More Information

The following are some English-language resources that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.

  • 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

The brain tumors organizations here provide information about types of and treatments for brain tumors as well as information for caregivers about support resources:

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