More than half of all children with brain tumors are cured. But a brain tumor can be hard to treat because the tumor and its treatments affect the child's central nervous system.
This system is the control center for the child's body. It's also the system through which your child thinks, feels and senses the world.
Treatment depends in part on whether the tumor is cancer or not.
Children who have brain tumors may need to have surgery to remove the tumors or receive radiation or chemotherapy to kill cancer cells. Many children receive more than one type of treatment.
Because there are many forms of childhood brain tumors, some treatments may suit your child better than others. Your child's doctor and health care team will suggest a treatment plan for your child based on the type of tumor your child has, where it is, how much it has spread, your child's age and other aspects of your child's health.
Brain Tumor Treatment Options
If your child has a brain tumor, your child's doctors may suggest surgery. Most children who have a brain tumor have surgery.
The first surgery your child has may be a biopsy. In a biopsy, doctors take out a small sample of cells from the tumor to check for cancer. If they can, doctors may try to remove most of tumor when they are doing the biopsy.
Doctors often need to do surgery after the biopsy to remove the tumor. Doctors can sometimes remove a tumor completely. This depends on the type of tumor and where it is.
After surgery, if the tumor is cancer, doctors may use chemotherapy and radiation to kill any cancer cells that may be left in the child's body. Their goal is to prevent the tumor from coming back.
In some cases, doctors cannot remove a tumor because of where it is, your child's overall health or other factors. In that case, your child may have chemotherapy or radiation or both.
Not all brain tumors require chemotherapy or radiation, even if doctors cannot remove the whole tumor.
Neurosurgeons at Seattle Children's perform surgery for our childhood brain tumor patients. Learn more about Neurosurgery at Children's.
Chemotherapy means giving medicines that go throughout your child's body to kill cancer cells. Your child's doctors may suggest chemotherapy as your child's main treatment or along with surgery or radiation.
Children can get chemotherapy, or anti-cancer medicines, through a vein or in some cases by mouth. These medicines spread around the body through the bloodstream. They can help kill cancer cells that are in the brain as well as those that may have spread to other sites.
Researchers are looking for ways to use chemotherapy for treating brain tumors in children to reduce the need for radiation. They are looking for the best mixes of chemotherapy medicines, and they are testing new medicines to see if they work and are safe.
Our childhood brain tumor patients receive chemotherapy at our hospital's main campus in Seattle – most often during a stay in the hospital (as inpatients), but sometimes in a clinic (as outpatients).
Your child's doctors may suggest treating a brain tumor with radiation, perhaps along with surgery or chemotherapy.
Radiation uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells and reduce the size of tumors.
Most children with a brain tumor receive external radiation. A machine outside the body sends a dose of radiation through the outer structures, such as the skin and the skull, into deeper areas of the body.
For brain tumors, doctors may direct radiation at a certain area of the brain and at the spinal cord.
Doctors may use stereotactic radiosurgery, also called gamma knife therapy, in children with brain tumors. Despite the "knife" in the name, there is no cutting.
First, doctors pinpoint the site of the tumor using a CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
Then they attach a frame to the child's skull and use it to direct the radiation in a very focused manner. This way, healthy brain tissue gets less radiation.
Radiation can cause unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, sore throat or mild skin burning, or long-term problems, such as infertility or second cancers. Radiation also can affect the way a child develops.
Researchers are looking for ways to give it in smaller doses while still killing the cells that pose a threat. They are also looking for ways to delay the use of radiation in young children, especially those younger than 3 years old. For example, they may give chemotherapy first or limit the amount of radiation they give.
Our patients receive radiation through our partner UW Medicine.
Learn more about Children's Radiation Therapy Service.
New Treatments for Brain Tumors
Children's belongs to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium and the Children's Oncology Group.
Through these groups, we take part in research of new medicines and other treatments, new methods to deliver treatment and new ways to use radiation for children with brain tumors.
The consortium also researches better ways to check the effects of treatments on tumors. This includes better imaging methods so doctors have a clearer view of how tumors change during treatment.
Read more about the treatments and services we offer in our Brain Tumor Clinic.
Most of our patients with brain tumors take part in clinical trials. These research studies give children the chance to get the very latest treatment options being studied – options that are not offered at all treatment centers.
Your child's doctor will talk with you in detail about any new treatment that might be a match for your child. Then you can decide whether you want to try this option.
Read more about research at Children's and about follow-up after treatment ends.