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What Is Pediatric Brain Cancer?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Pediatric brain cancer is defined as the growth of malignant tumors in a child’s brain. This type of cancer is one of the most common to develop in children and second only to leukemia. Pediatric brain cancer can cause a variety of symptoms depending on where in the brain the tumor is growing. Several medical scans and tests are used to diagnose this health issue, and treatment can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination.

This type of cancer is usually the result of a primary tumor, meaning the cancer begins in the brain rather than spreads to the brain from somewhere else. When cancer spreads to the brain, it is known as metastatic brain cancer. As the brain controls the rest of the body, symptoms of pediatric brain cancer can vary drastically among patients. The most common are headaches, nausea, and seizures. Pediatric brain cancer can also cause changes in a child’s personality and may result in depression or issues with speech and vision.

The diagnosis of this health issue is often two-fold. Doctors first need to scan the brain to locate any possible tumors and then biopsy any growths or masses found on the scans. The most common scans are magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), X-ray computed tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET). Once the brain is mapped and potential tumors are located, a small piece of the tumor is removed with a biopsy for further testing; if the tumor is found to be malignant, a diagnosis of pediatric brain cancer is made.

Surgical removal of part or the entire tumor is often a treatment option for pediatric brain cancer. In a total resection, the entire tumor is removed. When less than 10% remains, it is known as a near total resection, while 40% or less remaining is a subtotal resection. A partial resection means that less than 50% of the tumor is removed. The risks associated with surgery depend on the size and location of the cancer; studies have found that two out of 10 patients suffer serious side effects from this treatment. Surgery can be a standalone treatment or in conjunction with radiation or chemotherapy.

Radiation treatments for pediatric brain cancer utilize X-rays to destroy cancerous cells. This most often occurs after surgery to remove any remaining tumors. Chemotherapy uses chemical substances to shrink and kill off cancerous cells. In many cases, chemo is used prior to surgery to shrink a tumor until it is small enough to be completely removed. Both radiation and chemotherapy, however, can be used on their own in certain circumstances. When pediatric brain cancer is diagnosed in children under 3 years of age, chemotherapy is often the preferred treatment; very young children tend to respond to chemo much better than adults and can often be kept relatively comfortable during treatment.

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