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Childhood Astrocytoma Treatment

General Information About Childhood Astrocytomas

Childhood astrocytoma is a disease in which benign (noncancer) or malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the brain.

Astrocytomas are tumors that start in star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes. An astrocyte is a type of glial cell. Glial cells hold nerve cells in place and help them work the way they should. There are several types of astrocytomas. They can form anywhere in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Brain tumors are the third most common type of cancer in children.

The tumors may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Benign brain tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain. They rarely spread into other tissues. Malignant brain tumors are likely to grow quickly and spread into other brain tissue. When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from working the way it should. Both benign and malignant brain tumors can cause symptoms and need treatment.

This summary is about the treatment of primary brain tumors that begin in the glial cells in the brain. Information is included about the following tumors that form from glial cells:

Treatment of metastatic brain tumors is not discussed in this summary. Metastatic brain tumors are formed by cancer cells that begin in other parts of the body and spread to the brain.

Brain tumors can occur in both children and adults. However, treatment for children may be different than treatment for adults. (See the PDQ treatment summary on Adult Brain Tumors for more information.)

The central nervous system controls many important body functions.

Astrocytomas most commonly form in these parts of the central nervous system (CNS):


Anatomy of the brain, showing the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, and other parts of the brain.
Anatomy of the brain, showing the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, and other parts of the brain.

Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the pineal and pituitary glands, optic nerve, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), and other parts of the brain.
Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the pineal and pituitary glands, optic nerve, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), and other parts of the brain.

The cause of most childhood brain tumors is not known.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Parents who think their child may be at risk should discuss this with their child's doctor. Possible risk factors for astrocytoma include:

Having NF1 may increase a child's risk of a type of tumor called visual pathway glioma. These tumors usually do not cause symptoms. Children with NF1 who develop visual pathway gliomas may not need treatment for the tumor unless symptoms, such as vision problems, appear or the tumor grows.

The symptoms of astrocytomas are not the same in every child.

Symptoms are different depending on the following:

Some tumors do not cause symptoms. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms as those caused by childhood astrocytomas. Check with your child's doctor if any of the following problems occur:

Tests that examine the brain and spinal cord are used to detect (find) childhood astrocytomas.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

Childhood astrocytomas are diagnosed and removed in surgery.

If doctors think there may be an astrocytoma, a biopsy may be done to remove a sample of tissue. For tumors in the brain, the biopsy is done by removing part of the skull and using a needle to remove tissue. Sometimes, the needle is guided by a computer. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor may remove as much tumor as safely possible during the same surgery. Because it can be hard to tell the difference between types of brain tumors, you may want to have your child's tissue sample checked by a pathologist who has experience in diagnosing brain tumors.

The following tests may be done on the tissue that was removed:

A biopsy may not be needed for children who have NF1.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

For recurrent astrocytoma, prognosis and treatment depend on how long it was from the time treatment ended to the time the astrocytoma recurred.