700 Children's Blog

Brain Tumors in Children: Common Symptoms and Advances in Treatment

Sep 04, 2018
image of a young boy

What are brain tumors?

A brain tumor is an abnormal mass or growth of tissue. They occur when cells in or around the brain divide excessively. Childhood brain tumors can vary from less aggressive to more aggressive. Most children and adolescents who develop brain tumors will survive into adulthood. However, many will face physical, psychological, social and intellectual challenges related to their treatment.

How common are brain tumors?

Brain tumors are relatively rare in children, occurring in only five of every 100,000 children. Approximately 4,000 children and adolescents in the US are diagnosed with primary brain tumors each year. There are 130 different types of brain tumors known making them quite complex. The majority of brain tumors have abnormalities of genes causing the uncontrolled growth. These abnormalities are caused by alterations directly in the genes or by chromosome rearrangements. Patients with certain genetic conditions (neurofibromatosis, von Hippel-Lindau disease, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and retinoblastoma) also have an increased risk to develop tumors of the central nervous system. Children who have received radiation therapy to the head as part of prior treatment for other malignancies are also at an increased risk for new brain tumors. However, there have also been some reports of children in the same family developing brain tumors who do not have any of these genetic syndromes.

What are common symptoms of brain tumors?

Brain tumors can occur at any age. Diagnosing a childhood brain tumor early and accurately can save lives and reduce long-term disability. The symptoms of a brain tumor may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child’s physician for a diagnosis. Here are some symptoms to look for at different stages of your child’s life.

Infants and Toddlers:

  • Persistent, recurring vomiting or headache
  • Balance, coordination or walking problems
  • Abnormal eye movement or suspected loss of vision
  • Fits or seizures (not with a fever)
  • Behavior change, particularly lethargy
  • Abnormal head position such as wry neck, head tilt or stiff neck
  • Increasing head circumference

Children:

  • Persistent, recurring vomiting or headache
  • Balance, coordination or walking problems
  • Abnormal eye movements, blurred vision, double vision or loss of vision
  • Abnormal head position such as wry neck, head tilt or stiff neck
  • Behavior change
  • Fits or seizures

Teens:

  • Persistent, recurring vomiting or headache
  • Balance, coordination or walking problems
  • Behavior change
  • Fits or seizures
  • Abnormal eye movements, blurred vision, double vision or loss of vision
  • Delayed or arrested puberty

Additional Symptoms to consider:

  • Reduced consciousness
  • Diabetes insipidus (Excessive drinking)
  • Abnormal growth

What advancements are being made in research of brain tumors?

There have been significant improvements in the overall survival of children with brain tumors in the last two decades. New tools and surgical approaches help doctors diagnose brain tumors earlier and treat the more effectively. While there have been significant advances, cancers in the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system, CNS) are now the most common cause of deaths due to disease in children and adolescents. Outcomes are especially uncertain for young children with malignant embryonal brain tumors. These tumors behave more aggressively in children and the side-effects of traditional radiation therapy in addition to drug therapy are toxic to the developing brain of young children. This develops in children under 6 years of age and have been the catalyst of multiple research studies on brain tumors.

In 1991, the Head Start treatment studies was conducted to avoid radiotherapy through the use of highly-intensive drug therapy. These studies successively documented increasing cancer-free survival, with decreasing side-effects and preserved long term normal quality of life. In mid-2015, the Head Start 4 study was started at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in order to test a new strategy. As of September 2017, 24 institutions throughout North America have opened the study to patient participation and we are currently enrolling 2-3 children each month as an additional 20 or so institutions throughout North America, Australia and New Zealand begin participating.

Contact Neuro-Oncology with any questions or request an appointment. Our team would be happy to answer any questions or schedule an appointment at (614) 722-4086, Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. 

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Scott Coven, DO, MPH

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Pediatric News You Can Use From America’s Largest Pediatric Hospital and Research Center

700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.