A brain tumor is a disease in which cells grow uncontrollably in the brain. Eventually these cells form a mass of tissue called a tumor. If the tumor invades nearby tissue or spreads to other parts of the body, then it is a malignant tumor. A malignant tumor is also known as cancer.
Brain cancer can fall into 2 categories:
Primary brain cancer—begins in the brainSecondary or metastatic brain cancer—cancer started somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain. These are also known as metastatic tumors.
If the tumor does not invade other tissue it is considered a benign tumor. Although a benign tumor does not spread, it can cause damage by pressing on nearby brain tissue.
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The cause of most primary brain cancer and benign tumors is unknown. Researchers believe that the tumors may be due to defects in genes. These defects trigger cells to grow uncontrollably.
Secondary brain cancer is caused by the cancer spreading to the brain from another site.
Factors that increase your child’s chance of developing brain tumors include:
Genetic conditions such as retinoblastoma, neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, and Von Hippel-Lindau diseaseFamily history of certain types of cancer
Symptoms depend on how large the tumor is and where it is located. Tumors can increase pressure and cause headaches. These headaches are different than the typical headaches that everyone gets. The headaches may: Worsen over a period of weeks to monthsBe worse in the morning or cause you to wake during the nightWorsen with change of posture, straining, or coughing
The tumor can also affect the function of nearby tissue and cause:
Nausea and vomiting, especially early morning vomitingTrouble with balanceSeizuresPersonality changesConfusionIrritabilityDrowsinessDepressionWeakness or numbness in the arms or legsVision or hearing changes, including double visionMemory lossProblems with speech
You will be asked about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Muscle strength, coordination, reflexes, response to stimuli, and alertness will be tested. Your child's eyes may be examined to check for signs of brain swelling.
Pictures may be needed of structures inside your child's body. This can be done with: MRI scanCT scanPositron emission tomography (PET) scanArteriography
A sample of your child's brain tissue may be removed for testing. This will help identify certain characteristics of the tumor. If it is cancer, results from a few different tests will be used to determine the stage of the cancer. The stage helps choose the best treatment options and make a prognosis.
Treatment depends on the type, size, and location of the cancer. It also depends on your child’s overall health. Some treatments can affect nearby healthy tissue. This may lead to physical or mental limitations.
In some cases, the doctor may advise that your child takes medication, such as:
Corticosteroids—to reduce swelling in the brainAnticonvulsants—to prevent seizures
Examples of surgical procedures used to treat brain tumors include:
—opening the skull to remove the tumor or as much of the tumor as possiblePlacement of a shunt—a long thin tube is placed in the brain to let fluid drain out of the brain
is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. The drugs may be delivered into cerebrospinal fluid. This is fluid that surrounds the brain tissue.
is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. This is a common treatment for brain tumors. Radiation may be used alone or with chemotherapy.
Radiation may be:
External radiation therapy—Radiation is directed at the tumor from a source outside the body.
If you have a metastatic brain tumor, you will receive whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT). WRBT may also be used in people who have cancer in other areas of the body to prevent brain cancer.If you have a primary brain tumor, you will receive more focused radiation therapy. Internal radiation therapy—Radioactive materials are placed into the body near the cancer cells.
This is used less often.Stereotactic radiosurgery—This is a more precise method of delivering higher doses of radiation. It helps to target cancer cells and spare nearby healthy tissue. It is used most often in metastatic brain tumors or in benign brain tumors, such as
Rehabilitation therapy is important to help regain lost skills or learn new ones.
Rehabilitation therapy includes:
Physical therapy to help with walking, balance, and building strengthOccupational therapy to help with mastering life skills, such as dressing, eating, and using the toiletSpeech therapy to help express thoughts and overcome swallowing difficulties
Your child may also work with an educational specialist. They can help with the transition back to school and with learning problems.
Since the exact cause is unknown, there is no way to prevent brain tumors.
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http://www.childrenshospital.org/az/Site659/mainpageS659P0.html. Updated 2013. Accessed June 11, 2015.
Brain tumors. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin website. Available at:
http://www.chw.org/display/router.asp?DocID=22484. Accessed June 11, 2015.
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http://www.uchicagokidshospital.org/specialties/cancer/brain-spinal/index.html. Accessed July 11, 2015.
Last reviewed June 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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