Childhood astrocytomas are tumors in the brain or spinal cord. The tumors are an abnormal mass of tissue that results when glial cells (a type of cell that holds nerve cells in place and helps them work properly) divide more than they should or do not die when they should. An astrocyte is a type of glial cell.
Childhood astrocytomas can be low-grade or high-grade tumors. The grade of the tumor describes how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread. High-grade astrocytomas are fast-growing, malignant tumors. Low-grade astrocytomas are slow-growing tumors that are less likely to be malignant.
Headaches and other symptoms may be caused by childhood brain and spinal cord tumors. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Consult a doctor if any of the following problems occur:
• 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.
• Increase in the head size (in infants).
Spinal Cord Tumors
• 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.
Different types of treatment are available for children with brain and spinal cord tumors. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment, often referred to as “standard of care”), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to 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.
Three types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery may be used to diagnose and treat childhood brain and spinal cord tumors as discussed in the General Information section of this summary.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.
Radiation therapy to the brain can affect growth and development in young children. For this reason, clinical trials are studying ways of using chemotherapy to delay, reduce, or end the need for radiation therapy. Also, ways of giving radiation therapy that lessen damage to healthy brain tissue are being used. Stereotactic radiosurgery is a type of radiation therapy that uses a rigid head frame attached to the skull to aim high-dose radiation beams directly at the tumors, which causes less damage to nearby healthy tissue. It is also called stereotaxic radiosurgery and radiation surgery. This procedure does not involve surgery.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
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). When chemotherapy is placed directly in the spinal column, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.
Anticancer drugs given by mouth or vein to treat brain and spinal cord tumors cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Instead, an anticancer drug is injected into the fluid-filled space to kill cancer cells there. This is called intrathecal chemotherapy.