A cerebellar astrocytoma is one of the most common types of malignant brain tumor in children. People over the age of 10 rarely develop the cancer. Symptoms can vary, depending on the size and exact location of a cerebellar astrocytoma, but many patients experience headaches, nausea, and some degree of motor movement problems or mental confusion. When a tumor is discovered in its initial stages, brain surgery is usually effective at removing the malignancy completely. An advanced or spreading cancer may require surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy to reduce the chances of life-threatening complications.
Doctors do not yet understand the exact causes of a cerebellar astrocytoma. Some limited research suggests the condition may arise due to certain environmental factors during pregnancy. An expecting mother who is exposed to toxins or pollutants might have a slightly increased risk of giving birth to a baby with a cerebellar astrocytoma. Genetic mutations are also suspected to play a role in the tumor's development, though specific genetic markers have not been identified.
Most cerebellar astrocytomas are slow-growing tumors that do not cause symptoms for several years. As a tumor grows, it can increase pressure within the skull and lead to chronic headaches. Some children become nauseous and vomit frequently. Since the cerebellum is the center of motor control, an invasive tumor may cause weakness or loss of feeling in an extremity. Other problems may include vision or speaking difficulties, poor judgment and memory, confusion, and lethargy.
If a pediatrician suspects a cerebellar astrocytoma based on symptoms, he or she typically schedules a consultation with a neurologist. The neurologist can analyze results from imaging scans to positively identify a tumor. Computerized tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasounds, and x-rays can all be helpful in determining the size and location of the mass. After the diagnosis is confirmed, treatment options are discussed with the patient and family members.
Whenever possible, most neurologists prefer to remove cerebellar astrocytomas surgically. Modern surgical techniques allow experts to cut small tumors out of the cerebellum without causing any damage to surrounding tissue. The procedure has a very high success rate, and the majority of patients make full recoveries. In some cases, however, an operation is not possible because a tumor is too large or cancer has already started to spread. Chemotherapy and radiation are options that help many patients recover from at least some of their symptoms when surgery alone is ineffective.