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The brain controls memory and learning, senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch), and emotion. It also controls other parts of the body, including muscles, organs, and blood vessels.
A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of tissue contained within the skull; it can be benign (without cancer cells) or malignant (contains cancer cells). Other than leukemia and lymphoma, malignant brain tumors are the type of cancer that occurs most commonly in children.
Cancer found in the brain often has started somewhere else in the body and has spread (metastasized) to the brain. This overview covers a type of tumor, cerebral astrocytoma, that starts in the brain (a primary brain tumor).
Brain stem gliomas are tumors located in the area of the brain called the brain stem, which connects the spinal cord with the brain and is located in the lowest portion of the brain, just above the back of the neck. Gliomas may grow rapidly or slowly, depending on the grade of the tumor. The grade of a tumor is determined by examining its cells under a microscope to see how similar the cells are to normal cells. Cells from higher-grade, more abnormal-looking tumors usually grow faster and are more cancerous than cells from lower-grade tumors.
If your child has symptoms that may be caused by a brain tumor, his or her doctor may order a computed tomographic (CT) scan, a diagnostic test that uses computers and x-rays to create pictures of the body, or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, a diagnostic test similar to a CT scan using magnetic waves instead of x-rays.
Often, surgery is needed to determine whether there is a brain tumor and what type of tumor it is. The doctor may surgically remove a small sample of the tumor tissue and examine it under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. Sometimes a biopsy is done by making a small hole in the skull using a needle to extract a sample of the tumor.
A child's treatment and chance of recovery (prognosis) depend on the type and size of tumor, where it is located within the brain, and his or her age and general health.