Cancers and Tumors

Brain Tumors and Spinal Cord Tumors

What Are Brain Tumors and Spinal Cord Tumors?

A tumor is an abnormal growth of cells that the body does not need. Tumors can appear almost anywhere in a child's body, including the brain and spinal cord.

Brain tumor

A cross-section view of a malignant tumor called a medulloblastoma (PNET) sitting in the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the back of the brain where balance is coordinated.

Tumors can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Benign tumors grow slowly and tend not to spread within the central nervous system or to other parts of the body. Malignant tumors grow fairly fast. A malignant tumor may spread within the brain or spinal cord. Usually, though, malignant tumors do not spread outside of the brain or spinal cord.

Brain tumors in children are usually primary tumors. That means they start in the brain or spinal cord instead of spreading from another area in the body.

Spinal cord tumors can form on the tough membrane dura mater that helps protect the spinal cord. They can also form in the dura mater itself, or inside or outside of the spinal cord.

Brain Tumors and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children

Scientists believe that a tumor happens because of some change in a person's gene structure. We don't know what causes the change. It may be present at birth (congenital), due to environmental factors or caused by a combination of both.

Brain tumors are fairly common. They are the most common solid tumor in children. Each year, about 2,200 children in the United States are diagnosed with a brain tumor. Brain tumors are more common in children under the age of 7 than older children.

In the past, brain tumors were the second most common cancer in children. Cancer of the blood (leukemia) was the most common. In the last few years, brain tumors and leukemia have become equally common in patients at Seattle Children's.

Certain types of brain tumors are more common at certain ages:

  • PNETs (medulloblastomas) occur most often in children younger than 9 years old.
  • Slow growing astrocytomas occur most often in children between 11 and 19 years old.

Spinal cord tumors are uncommon. They make up only 6% of central nervous system tumors. They occur mostly in children 10 to 16 years old.

Brain Tumors and Spinal Cord Tumors at Seattle Children's

Our neurosurgery team has a lot of experience treating brain and spinal cord tumors. We operate on about 70 to 80 children with these tumors each year, more than any other pediatric hospital in Washington. Our neurosurgeons use the most up-to-date surgical procedures and equipment. We have the unique ability to perform brain stem and motor mapping and care for unique tumors such as intraventricular, pineal region and brain stem tumors.

We work very closely with doctors in our Brain Tumor Clinic. These doctors may care for your child throughout treatment, including after surgery.

Our team works closely with several other organizations that can help your child and your family: