Childhood Brain and Nervous System Cancers

What are childhood brain and nervous system cancers?

The nervous system is comprised of the brain, spinal cord, sensory organs, and nerves, which are located throughout the body. Common nervous system cancers are brain tumors and spinal cord tumors. Brain tumors are the second most frequently diagnosed type of childhood cancer (following childhood leukemia) and usually occur in children under the age of seven. Spinal cord tumors are less common and are typically seen in older children.

What are the different types of childhood brain and nervous system cancers?

Brain Tumors

The most common type of brain tumors in children are gliomas and medullablastomas. Gliomas develop from the supportive tissue of the brain. Gliomas are categorized by the location of the brain in which they are found. The most common types of gliomas are:

  • Astrocytomas
  • Brain stem gliomas
  • Ependymomas
  • Optic nerve gliomas

Approximately 15 percent of brain tumors in children are classified as medullablastomas. Medullablastomas form in the part of the brain called the cerebellum.

Spinal Cord Tumors

Spinal cord tumors are growths on the part of the central nervous system called the spinal cord. Spinal cord tumors may originate on the spinal cord or metastasize(spread) from other parts of the brain. The majority of spinal cord tumors develop in cells near the spinal cord; only 10 percent of spinal cord tumors begin in the cells inside the spinal cord. The most common types of spinal cord tumors include:

  • Meningioma
  • Acoustic neuroma
  • Neurofibroma
  • Ependymoma

Other Types of Nervous System Cancers

Other types of tumors that may develop in the nervous system include:

  • Choroid plexus
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Craniopharyngioma
  • Dysembryoplastic neuroepilthelial
  • Germ cell

What are the symptoms of childhood brain and nervous system cancers?

It’s important to remember that the symptoms of childhood brain and nervous system cancers differ among children. In addition, many of the signs that could indicate cancer in the brain or nervous system could be attributed to multiple other conditions. Signs and symptoms that may be associated with brain and nervous system cancer include:

  • Headache
  • Back pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Trouble with seeing, hearing, and speaking
  • Fatigue or change in energy level
  • Leg weakness and difficulty with balance or walking
  • Change in bowel/urinary function
  • Seizures
  • Sudden changes in personality or behavior
  • Noticeable increase in head size and difficulty reaching developmental milestones in infants

If your child displays any symptoms of brain and nervous system cancers, make an appointment for a consultation with your pediatrician or family physician.

What are the causes and risk factors of childhood brain and nervous system cancers?

The exact cause of childhood brain and nervous system cancers is unknown. Aside from exposure to radiation, no environmental or lifestyle factors are known to increase the risk of brain tumors among children.

Some rare inherited syndromes are believed by researchers to have an effect on changes in certain genes, which may be linked to certain brain and spinal cord tumors. These syndromes include:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome
  • Neurofibromatosis
  • Tuberous sclerosis

How are childhood brain and nervous system cancers treated?

Treatment for childhood brain and nervous system cancers is individualized, meaning that each patient has a unique treatment plan. Sometimes childhood brain and spinal cord tumors are treated differently in children than in adults.

Surgery is typically the first step in treating brain and spinal cord tumors in children. The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the tumor as possible while preserving cognitive function. Other types of treatment may be used in place of or in addition to surgery including: