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Brain Tumor and Brain Cancer—Child

A brain tumor is the presence of cancerous cells in the brain. There are 2 types of brain tumors.

  • A primary brain tumor begins in the brain.
  • A secondary brain tumor starts somewhere else in the body and spreads to the brain.

Brain Tumor

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Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Sometimes, cells divide uncontrollably when new cells are not needed. A mass of tissue called a growth or tumor forms. What causes these changes in the cells is unclear. It is likely to be a combination of gentic and environmental factors.

If the tumor does not invade other tissue it is considered a benign tumor. Although a benign brain tumor does not spread, it can cause damage by pressing on nearby brain tissue. Malignant tumors can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the brain and spinal cord.

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your child’s chance of a brain tumor include:


Symptoms depend on how large the tumor is and where it is located. A tumor can increase pressure in the skull and cause headaches. These headaches are different than the typical headaches that everyone gets. The headaches may:

  • Worsen over a period of weeks to months
  • Be worse in the morning or cause you to wake during the night
  • Worsen with change of posture, straining, or coughing

A tumor can also affect the function of nearby tissue and cause:

  • Nausea and vomiting, especially early morning vomiting
  • Trouble with balance
  • Seizures
  • Personality changes
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Drowsiness
  • Depression
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Vision or hearing changes, including double vision
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with speech

You will be asked about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Muscle strength, coordination, reflexes, response to stimuli, and alertness will be tested. Your child's eyes may be examined to check for signs of brain swelling.

Imaging tests will help evalute internal structures. This can be done with:

A biopsy of your child's brain tissue may be removed for testing. This will help identify certain characteristics of the tumor. If a tumor is present, results from a few different tests will be used to determine the stage. Staging is used determine a treatment plan.


Treatment depends on the type, size, and location of the tumor, and if it has spread. It also depends on your child’s overall health. Some treatments can affect nearby healthy tissue. This may lead to physical or mental limitations.


Medications can help control problems the tumor causes. Examples include:

  • Corticosteroids—to reduce swelling in the brain
  • Anticonvulsants—to prevent seizures

Examples of surgical procedures used to treat brain tumors include:

  • Craniotomy —opening the skull to remove the tumor or as much of the tumor as possible
  • Placement of a shunt—a long thin tube is placed in the brain to let fluid drain out of the brain
Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. The drugs may be delivered into cerebrospinal fluid. This is fluid that surrounds the brain tissue.

Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. This is a common treatment for brain tumors. Radiation therapy may be used alone or with chemotherapy. Radiation therapy may be:

  • External—Radiation is directed at the tumor from a source outside the body.
    • If you have a primary brain tumor, radiation beams will be focused on the tumor.
    • If you have a secondary brain tumor, you will receive whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT). WRBT may also be used in people who have cancer in other areas of the body to prevent brain cancer.
  • Internal (brachytherapy)—Radioactive materials are placed into the body near the cancer cells. This is used less often.
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery—This is a more precise method of delivering higher doses of radiation. It helps to target cancer cells and spare nearby healthy tissue. It is used most often in metastatic brain tumors or in benign brain tumors, such as meningiomas.
Rehabilitation Therapy

Rehabilitation therapy is important to help regain lost skills or learn new ones. Rehabilitation therapy includes:

  • Physical therapy to help with walking, balance, and building strength
  • Occupational therapy to help with mastering life skills, such as dressing, eating, and using the toilet
  • Speech therapy to help express thoughts and overcome swallowing difficulties

Your child may also work with an educational specialist. They can help with the transition back to school and with learning problems.


There are no current guidelines to prevent brain tumors because the cause is unknown.


American Brain Tumor Association

American Cancer Society


Canadian Cancer Society

Cancer Care Ontario


Astrocytoma and oligodendroglioma. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated May 13, 2016. Accessed September 15, 2016.

Brain tumors. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Available at: Updated June 2012. Accessed September 6, 2016.

Brain tumors. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin website. Available at: Accessed September 6, 2016.

Brain tumors in children. Boston Children's Hospital website. Available at: Updated 2013. Accessed September 6, 2016.

General information about childhood brain and spinal cord tumors. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed September 6, 2016.

Pediatric brain and spinal cord tumor center. Comer Children’s Hospital, the University of Chicago website. Available at: Accessed July 11, 2015.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Mohei Abouzied, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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