What are brain or spinal cord tumors?
The brain and spinal cord make up what is called the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is the control center for thought, memory, coordination of movement, signals from the 5 senses, emotion and hormone activity.
A brain or spinal cord tumor is an abnormal growth of cells that forms a lump within the CNS. A tumor that starts in the CNS is called primary. When a tumor travels from another part of the body to the brain, this is called a secondary brain tumor. Most brain tumors in children and adolescents are primary tumors. (CNS tumors are different from tumors of the spine, which affect the bones and soft tissue.)
The symptoms caused by a CNS tumor are often related to where the tumor is, rather than the type of tumor. Other factors that are very important in the diagnosis and treatment of CNS tumors include:
- Age of the patient
- Exact type of tumor
- Whether the tumor occurs in a single location or in multiple locations (metastatic)
- Whether the tumor is safe to remove by surgery
There are many different types of CNS tumors that occur in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Doctors do not know exactly what causes these tumors to occur, and there is no known way to prevent the development of a brain or spinal cord tumor.
Some tumors are considered “benign” (not cancer) and some tumors are considered “malignant” or “cancer.” All types can cause related health problems and require treatment from a team with knowledge about that specific type of tumor.
Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors at Seattle Children’s
Seattle Children’s is the largest and most experienced pediatric brain and spinal cord tumor program in the Northwest. We have experience treating all types of CNS tumors in infants, children, adolescents and young adults through our Brain Tumor Program.
The experts you need are here
Our Brain Tumor Program brings together experts in neurology, oncology, neurosurgery and related fields. The team includes pediatric neurosurgeons, pediatric radiologists who specialize in the nervous system, pediatric radiation oncologists and many others. Many of them are known across the nation as leaders in treating childhood brain and spinal cord tumors. They work with children whose tumors are cancerous, as well as children with tumors that are not cancerous. Each year our neurosurgeons perform surgery for 70 to 80 children with CNS tumors, more than any other pediatric hospital in Washington.
The most advanced therapies
The doctors on our brain tumor team are leaders in pediatric cancer research. They lead national clinical trials of novel therapies — new drugs or other new treatment approaches that are available only to patients in studies. This means patients at Seattle Children’s have access to the most advanced therapies. This is especially important if the tumor returns after the initial treatment.
Seattle Children’s has more than a dozen therapeutic trials at any time for various types of CNS tumors. These are offered through cooperative groups, including the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), the Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium (PNOC), the Phase 1 Consortium of COG and within our own Center for Clinical and Translational Research.
To see if there is a clinical trial that would be appropriate for your child’s type of tumor, you or your child’s doctor can:
Cure rates that are among the best in the world
Doctors who treat people with cancer use 5-year survival rates as a way to measure treatment success. The 5-year survival rate means the percentage of patients with the disease who are alive 5 years after their disease was diagnosed.
- For all forms of childhood cancer combined, our 5-year survival rate at Seattle Children’s is higher than the national average. Our rate is 82%. The national average is 76.4%.
- The 5-year survival rate for patients diagnosed with a brain tumor at Seattle Children’s has been consistently higher than the national average for the past 20 years. Three out of 4 children diagnosed with a brain tumor today will be cured.
- For CNS tumors, our rate is 5 points higher than the national average. Read more childhood cancer statistics.
Read more about the Brain Tumor Program, research and other tumor-related programs and services at Seattle Children’s.
Types of Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors
We treat all types of brain and spinal cord tumors, including:
Low-grade glioma (LGG)
Doctors grade tumors. Low-grade glioma (pronounced glee-OH-ma) is the most common type of tumor found in children. Types of LGG include pilocytic astrocytoma, pilomyxoid astrocytoma and diffuse astrocytoma, among others. Low grade glioma may be treated by surgery alone, depending on where it is in the brain. If an LGG cannot be removed by surgery, other types of treatment, such as radiation or chemotherapy, may be used. Sometimes low-grade glioma can simply be watched without treatment. It is very rare for a low-grade glioma to become life threatening once it is properly diagnosed and care is started. Treatment is aimed at preventing the tumor from affecting the normal function of the brain.
High-grade glioma (HGG)
High-grade gliomas include anaplastic astrocytoma and glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), among others. HGG can occur in any part of the CNS, but most often occurs in the upper (supratentorial) area of the brain. In the past, few people diagnosed with HGG were cured. Surgery, radiation therapy and newer medical therapies have improved survival.
Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG)
DIPG is a specific type of brain tumor in children that starts in a central part of the brainstem called the pons. The pons controls essential automatic functions such as breathing and heart rate. DIPG can also put pressure on cranial nerves, which control movement of the face, eyes, speech and swallowing. An experienced neurosurgeon may do a surgical biopsy, but often the diagnosis is made by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) alone. Treatment with radiation and sometimes chemotherapy can usually improve symptoms a great deal. Still, most DIPG will eventually grow back. This tumor remains a significant focus of research for newer, more effective therapies.
Embryonal tumors (medulloblastoma, PNET and ATRT)
Medulloblastoma (pronounced MED-you-low-blast-OH-ma), primitive neuro-ectodermal tumor (PNET) and atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumors (ATRT) are considered embryonal tumors. These are high-grade tumors that may grow quickly and always require treatment. With a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, most embryonal tumors may be cured. Treatment should be tailored to individual patient factors, including age, tumor location and type.
Ependymoma (pronounced eh-PEN-di-moh-ma) may occur in any area of the CNS, including the upper part of the brain (supratentorial), the lower part of the brain (infratentorial) or the spinal cord. Most children with ependymoma are cured with surgery and radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is useful in some cases.
Tumors of the pituitary
Tumors near or in the pituitary (pronounced pit-TWO-i-tary) gland are most commonly found in adolescents or young adults. These tumors may be accompanied by abnormal hormonal changes or pressure on the nerves that control vision. Sometimes, pituitary tumors are noticed on a brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) for an unrelated reason such as headaches. Pituitary tumors are almost never life threatening. They may be treated by surgery, by medicine alone or may just be monitored.
Other brain and spinal cord tumors
There are hundreds of other types of brain tumors, which may start in the brain or spinal cord. The Seattle Children’s Brain Tumor Program cares for children, adolescents and young adults with all types of brain tumors.
Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children
Any child or adolescent may get a brain or spinal cord tumor. Doctors do not know what causes CNS tumors in children.
In a small number of children, genetics seem to play a role. For example, some children with the disease neurofibromatosis get tumors in their brain or spinal cord.
Also, children who receive radiation treatment to the head for some other form of cancer may be at greater risk for a brain tumor later in life. But most children who have a brain tumor have no clear risk factors.
To make an appointment with a Seattle Children’s provider, you can be referred by your child’s primary care provider (or another specialist), or you can call us directly at 206-987-2106.