Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

A brain or spinal cord tumor is a disease in which abnormal cells in the tissues of the brain or spinal cord develop and grow out of control. The brain and spinal cord together make up the central nervous system (CNS).

Tumors can be identified as either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Benign tumors don’t spread around the body and typically have no potential to be fatal. Malignant tumors are more dangerous as they can spread to other parts of the body. However, the distinction is less necessary for brain tumors as both benign and malignant forms of this disease can be life-threateningly dangerous due to the fragility and space of the nervous system.

What are the Symptoms of Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors?

Symptoms of brain and spinal cord tumors may develop gradually or appear suddenly from events such as seizures.

General symptoms include:

  • Headaches (which may worsen with time)
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Crossed eyes or blurred vision
  • Balance problems
  • Behavioral changes
  • Seizures
  • Chronic drowsiness

Are there any known risk factors?

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of developing a disease such as cancer. Different diseases have different risk factors.

Lifestyle-related factors such as body weight, physical health, diet, and tobacco usage are well-known to contribute heavily to adult cancers. However, these factors usually take many years to influence cancer risks and are not thought to play as significant of a role in pediatric cancer.

There are very few known risk factors for brain and spinal cord tumors. Currently, the only established risk factor is radiation exposure, which usually is a part of treatment for other diseases and conditions. The chance of developing a brain tumor in life after radiation treatment is very slim, but it is still something to note when preparing treatment.

Certain inherited conditions and abnormal genetic conditions have also been linked to brain and spinal cord tumors.

How are brain and spinal cord tumors diagnosed?

Tumors are more likely to have a positive outlook the earlier they are detected. If a child possesses any risk factors or inherited or genetic conditions that may be linked to brain or spinal cord cancer, doctors recommend frequent medical and physical exams in order to spot any early developments.

If results are abnormal, your child’s doctor may recommend a neurologist or neurosurgeon for further screening. Tests to spot a brain and spinal cord tumor may include biopsy, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, computed tomography (CT) scans, or positron emission tomography (PET) scans.

What are the survival rates for brain and spinal cord tumors?

When discussing cancer survival statistics, the term 5-year survival rate is often used. This refers to the percentage of patients that live at least 5 years after their cancer is diagnosed. It is important to note that many patients will live longer than 5 years and also includes cured patients.

Survival rates for common brain and spinal cord tumors:

  • Pilocytic astrocytoma – about 95%
  • Diffuse astrocytoma – about 80% to 85%
  • Anaplastic astrocytoma – about 25%
  • Glioblastoma – about 20%
  • Oligodendroglioma – about 90%
  • Ependymoma/anaplastic ependymoma – about 75%
  • Embryonal tumors (includes medulloblastoma) – about 60% to 65%

Credit to the American Cancer Society.

How are brain and spinal cord tumors treated?

The main treatment options for brain and spinal cord tumors include various forms of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy drugs. Due to the individual qualities of patients and the range of uses for each form of treatment, every case of brain and spinal cord cancer will differ and a child’s treatment will be specific to them. It is likely that a child will receive some combination of the mentioned treatments.

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