Facts

Definition of a brain tumor: The growth of abnormal cells in the tissues of the brain. Brain tumors can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).

The brain directs the things we choose to do (like walking and talking) and the things our body does without thinking (like breathing). The brain is also in charge of our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell), memory, emotions, and personality.

A network of nerves carries messages back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. Some nerves go directly from the brain to the eyes, ears, and other parts of the head. Other nerves run through the spinal cord to connect the brain with the other parts of the body.

The three major parts of the brain control different activities:

  • Cerebrum: The cerebrum uses information from our senses to tell us what is going on around us and tells our body how to respond. It controls reading, thinking, learning, speech, and emotions.

The cerebrum is divided into the left and right cerebral hemispheres. The right hemisphere controls the muscles on the left side of the body. The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body.

  • Cerebellum: The cerebellum controls balance for walking and standing, and other complex actions.
  • Brain stem: The brain stem connects the brain with the spinal cord. It controls breathing, body temperature, blood pressure, and other basic body functions.

When most normal cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place. Sometimes, this process goes wrong. New cells form when the body doesn’t need them, and old or damaged cells don’t die as they should. The buildup of extra cells often forms a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor.

Primary brain tumors can be benign or malignant:

  • Benign brain tumors do not contain cancer cells:
    • Usually, benign tumors can be removed, and they seldom grow back.
    • Benign brain tumors usually have an obvious border or edge. Cells from benign tumors rarely invade tissues around them. They don’t spread to other parts of the body. However, benign tumors can press on sensitive areas of the brain and cause serious health problems.
    • Unlike benign tumors in most other parts of the body, benign brain tumors are sometimes life threatening.
    • Benign brain tumors may become malignant.

 

  • Malignant brain tumors (also called brain cancer) contain cancer cells:
    • Malignant brain tumors are generally more serious and often are a threat to life.
    • They are likely to grow rapidly and crowd or invade the nearby healthy brain tissue.
    • Cancer cells may break away from malignant brain tumors and spread to other parts of the brain or to the spinal cord. They rarely spread to other parts of the body.

Tumor Grade

Doctors group brain tumors by grade. The grade of a tumor refers to the way the cells look under a microscope:

  • Grade I: The tissue is benign. The cells look nearly like normal brain cells, and they grow slowly.
  • Grade II: The tissue is malignant. The cells look less like normal cells than do the cells in a Grade I tumor.
  • Grade III: The malignant tissue has cells that look very different from normal cells. The abnormal cells are actively growing (anaplastic).
  • Grade IV: The malignant tissue has cells that look most abnormal and tend to grow quickly.

Types of Primary Brain Tumors

Among children, the most common types are:

  • Medulloblastoma: The tumor usually arises in the cerebellum. It’s sometimes called a primitive neuroectodermal tumor. It is grade IV.
  • Grade I or II astrocytoma: In children, this lowgrade tumor occurs anywhere in the brain. The most common astrocytoma among children is juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma. It’s grade I.
  • Ependymoma: The tumor arises from cells that line the ventricles or the central canal of the spinal cord. It’s most commonly found in children and young adults. It can be grade I, II, or III.
  • Brain stem glioma: The tumor occurs in the lowest part of the brain. It can be a low-grade or high-grade tumor. The most common type is diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma


The symptoms of childhood brain tumors are not the same in every child.

Headaches and other symptoms may be caused by childhood brain tumors. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Check with a doctor if your child has any of the following problems:

Brain Tumor Symptoms

  • 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.
  • Seizures.
  • Increase in the head size (in infants).


In addition to these symptoms of brain tumors, some children are unable to reach certain growth and development milestones such as sitting up, walking, and talking in sentences.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery may be used to diagnose and treat childhood brain and spinal cord tumors.


Radiation therapy

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. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.


Chemotherapy

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 cerebrospinal fluid, 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.

 

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today’s standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

 

*Cancer information from the National Cancer Institute