Brain and spinal tumors, either malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous), are abnormal growths of tissue that originate in the cells of the brain or spinal cord. Tumors in the spinal cord are more rare than brain tumors, but both kinds of tumors behave in similar ways.
A benign tumor does not contain cancer cells and, once removed, typically does not recur (come back). Most benign brain tumors have clear borders, meaning they do not invade surrounding tissue. These tumors can cause symptoms similar to cancerous tumors because of their size and location in the brain.
Malignant brain tumors contain cancer cells. They are usually fast growing and invade surrounding tissue. Malignant brain tumors rarely spread to other areas of the body, but they may recur after treatment.
Brain tumors are the most common solid tumors in children. Approximately 4,000 children and adolescents in the U.S. are diagnosed with primary brain tumors (tumors that originate in the brain) each year. Those that occur in infants and children are different from adult brain tumors, both in terms of the type of cells and the responsiveness to treatment.
There are many types and subtypes of brain and spinal tumors. Some of the more common ones include:
The exact cause of brain and spinal tumors is not fully understood. Researchers have found that some of the chemical changes that occur in normal brain cells may lead to brain tumors. Most brain tumors involve abnormalities in genes that control the cell cycle (when cells grow, divide and die). These abnormalities cause uncontrolled cell growth.
Spinal tumors can also be caused by tumors that start in tissues that surround the spinal cord and spinal column and push in. They can come from surround muscle or bone and may put pressure on the spinal cord. These types of tumors can include:
Other than exposure to radiation, there are no known lifestyle-related or environmental causes of childhood brain tumors. If your child has a brain tumor, it is important to remember that there is nothing you or your child could have done to prevent it.
Symptoms of a brain or spinal tumor depend on the tumor’s size, type and location. Symptoms may be caused by a tumor pressing on a nerve or harming a part of the brain. They may also be caused by a tumor blocking the fluid that flows through and around the brain or the brain swelling because of the buildup of fluid.
Some of the most common symptoms of brain and spinal tumors include:
Many other conditions can cause the same symptoms, so it is important to check with your child’s doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Only a doctor experienced in recognizing the exact combination of symptoms that indicate a brain or spinal tumor can make a firm diagnosis.
Diagnosis of a brain tumor starts with a physical exam and medical history. Other procedures and tests may be needed to diagnose a brain tumor, including:
A customized treatment plan is put together for your child based on:
Treatment for a brain tumor may include one or a combination of the following options:
Treatment for a spinal tumor depends on the type of tumor. Treatments may include:
Secondary treatments for brain and spinal tumors include:
Your child’s prognosis (long-term outlook) depends on:
Each child’s prognosis is unique to his or her individual situation. Prompt and aggressive treatment based on an accurate diagnosis gives your child the best chance to overcome the tumor and any damage it may have caused. Treatment sometimes causes side effects, and these also affect your child’s prognosis. Recurrence of the tumor is sometimes possible, and this can have a significant effect as well.
Visit the links below to learn more about brain tumor support groups and resources.
Riley at IU Health offers a broad range of supportive services to make life better for families who choose us for their children's care.
The goal of this national association is to aid in funding brain tumor research and providing information and education about all tumor types in all age groups.
The American Cancer Society is a national, community-based volunteer health organization that is dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem. Learn more about brain and spinal cord tumors in children on its website.
Riley at IU Health provides access to innovative clinical trials to improve the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumors. These include trials with the Children’s Oncology Group (COG) and the National Experimental Therapeutics (NEXT) Consortium. Our clinical trials include new uses of MRI imaging and various therapeutic trials. We may discuss these trials as part of your child’s treatment plan.
In addition to our primary hospital location at the Academic Health Center in Indianapolis, IN, we have convenient locations to better serve our communities throughout the state.
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