Childhood Cancers: Brain Cancers

Brain Cancer photo BrainCancer2copy_zps2566b138.png

Brain tumours can be either primary (develop in the brain) or secondary (cancer from another part of the body spreads to the brain).  A primary brain tumour occurs when abnormal cells form in the tissues of the brain. Brain tumours are the most common type of tumour that develops in children, and they can affect children of any age. Slightly more boys than girls develop brain tumours.

The brain and spinal cord are closely linked and together they form the Central Nervous System (CNS). The spinal cord connects the brain with nerves in virtually every part of the human body. The brain controls many vital bodily functions.

The brain consists of three major parts:

  1. The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It sits at the top of the head and controls learning, emotions, thinking, speech, reading, writing, and voluntary movement.
  2. The cerebellum is the lower back part of the brain and lies near the middle of the back of the head. It controls balance, movement and posture
  3. The brain stem is the lowest part of the brain and is situated just above the back of the neck. It connects the brain to the spinal cord and controls heart rate, breathing, and all the muscles you use to walk, talk, hear, see, and eat

Malignant brain tumours grow rapidly and are likely to spread into other areas of the brain very quickly. When a tumour grows into or creates pressure on part of the brain it may cause that part of the brain to stop functioning the way it should.

Causes of Brain Cancer

Although brain tumours in children are the third most common form of childhood cancer after lymphoma and leukaemia, it is still unknown what the cause of most childhood brain cancers is.

Signs and Symptoms

Some of the typical signs and symptoms of Brain Cancer are:

  • Excessive thirst and excessive urination
  • Eye problems, such as abnormal eye movements, blurring or double vision
  • Increase in the head size in an infant
  • Irritability, listlessness
  • Pain, especially back pain, which should be taken seriously in a child
  • Persistent vomiting without any known cause (usually in the morning), nausea
  • Precocious puberty; growth retardation
  • Progressive weakness or clumsiness; neck tilt, squint
  • Seizures not related to a high fever
  • Sleep apnoea (irregular stopping of breathing during sleep)   
  • Staring, repetitive automatic movements
  • Unusual changes in personality or behaviour.
  • Unusual sleepiness or change in activity level.
  • Vision, hearing, and speech problems
  • Walking, balance problems

Some of the above could also be a sign of a medical condition other than cancer, so please consult your doctor if your child exhibits any of these symptoms.

Tests and Diagnosis

Brain Tumours can be diagnosed using the following tests and procedures:

  • Physical Exam and History: The doctor will give the child a physical examination, to check the general health as well as checking for anything unusual or signs of cancer, and a complete medical history will be taken
  • Neurological Exam: The doctor will ask a series of questions and perform certain tests to check brain function, nerve function and the spinal cord. Tests will check mental status, the ability to walk normally, coordination and how well the senses, muscles and reflexes are functioning.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): An MRI or nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), is a procedure whereby a series of detailed pictures is taken of the inside of the body using a computer, a magnet and radio waves
  • Angiogram: A contrast dye is injected into a blood vessel to check the state of the blood vessels and the blood flow to the brain. X-rays are taken as the dye moves through the body to see if there are any blockages

Other tests may be done including a PET scan, a CT scan, blood tests, or a Serum Tumour Marker Test.

Treatment Options

Because there are various types of brain tumours, the treatment will not be the same for every child. One treatment or a combination of treatments may be necessary.

Treatment options consist of:

  • Surgery: A neurosurgeon can often remove most of the tumour by cutting it out. A fine tube called a shunt may then be inserted to drain excess fluid from the brain into the lining of the abdomen to stop any rise of pressure in the brain
  • Chemotherapy: The use of a combination of anti-cancer drugs to destroy or shrink cancer cells is the preferred treatment for children, and may be done after surgery if the tumour could not be completely removed by the operation
  • Radiotherapy: High-energy rays that destroy the cancer cells but do minimal harm to normal cells

Some of the treatment options may result in after-effects such as nausea, vomiting, irritation or soreness of the skin from radiation, hair loss, risk of infection, fatigue, bruising and bleeding or diarrhoea. The doctor should explain all of this to you, but if they do not, please ask them about side effects.

Awareness Ribbon Colour

The awareness ribbon colour for Brain Tumours is Grey

 This article was written on behalf of Little Fighters Cancer Trust by Billi du Preez of Red Feather Scribes. Please feel free to share the article, but please respect copyright by sharing the article in its entirety, as is, including this paragraph with links at the bottom of the article. Thank You!

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