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Brain Tumors in Children

What is a brain tumor?

A brain tumor is a growth of abnormal cells in the brain. Not all brain tumors are caused by cancer. Brain cancer is a tumor that is caused by cancer cells. This kind of brain tumor is called malignant. There are several types of brain cancers. Tumors without cancer cells are called benign. Some types of tumors grow very slowly, while other types of tumors grow very fast.

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your child's chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that your child has.

What is the cause?

The cause of brain cancer is not known. One risk factor is being exposed to radiation, such as being treated with radiation for other types of cancer. Some kinds of brain tumors run in families.

Brain tumors are one of the more common forms of cancer in children.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of brain cancer may come on slowly, or they may start quickly. Pressure in the skull can be caused by a tumor, swelling, or a buildup of blood and fluids in some parts of your child’s brain. Symptoms can be different depending on where the tumor is in your child’s brain. Different parts of the brain control different parts of the body. Symptoms may include:

  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Problems with vision, hearing, smell, taste, or touch
  • Trouble thinking or speaking clearly
  • Drowsiness
  • Weakness or trouble when your child moves one or both sides of his body
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Mood swings and personality changes

About half of the children who have brain cancer will have headaches as a symptom of the cancer. The headaches may be worse in the morning or wake your child up during the night. Other things besides brain cancer can also cause these types of headaches.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Your child may have tests such as:

  • A neurological exam, which tests your child’s balance and walking, speech and memory, face and eye movements, muscle strength and reflexes, and your child’s ability to see, hear, taste, and smell
  • An angiogram, which uses contrast dye injected into a vein and X-rays to find blockages
  • CT, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • PET, which is a kind of X-ray that uses a radioactive material injected into a vein to show detailed pictures of the cancer
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain
  • Biopsy, which is the removal of a small sample of brain tissue for testing. When your child has a biopsy, he will first be given an anesthetic so that he will not feel any pain.

Your child may need more lab tests and scans to check if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

How is it treated?

Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your child’s age
  • Your child’s overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your child’s body

Possible treatments are:

  • Surgery to remove cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Biological therapy, which uses medicine to help your child’s immune system fight the cancer
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • The use of electrodes, ultrasound, or electromagnetic radiation to destroy abnormal tissue.

Your child’s treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms your child may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments

Often, more than 1 treatment is used. After treatment, your child will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether your child takes part in one or not.

How can I take care of my child?

If your child has been diagnosed with brain cancer:

  • Talk about your child’s cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
    • How long it will take your child to recover
    • If there are activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
    • How to take care of your child at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them
  • Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

It may also help if your child:

  • Eats a healthy diet and gets regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Gets plenty of rest.
  • Takes time for activities that he enjoys. It may help your child to talk with a counselor about his illness.
  • Tells you or your provider if treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help your child be more comfortable.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-04-28
Last reviewed: 2014-10-08
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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