Treating Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors
The brain and central nervous system control every aspect of our body, from its most basic functions such as breathing to significantly more complex functions such as movement and balance. The brain even controls personality and social interactions. So tumors located in the brain or spinal cord, whether they are benign or malignant, can significant impact how our body functions depending on where they grow and how much damage they inflict on healthy brain tissue. Survivorship issues for children with brain or spinal cord tumors often involves coping with symptoms stemming from the tumor itself, as well as from the treatment required to eliminate the tumor.
When discussing both short- and long-term side effects, it is important to understand the types of treatment options currently used to treat tumors in this very sensitive organ. The goal of any treatment plan is to remove the tumor from the body and if possible to prevent it from recurring, as well as to relieve any symptoms caused by the position and the growth of the tumor. In almost all cases, treatment for brain and spinal cord tumors will involve one or more of the following:
- Surgery: whenever possible, surgery will be used to remove all or as much of the tumor as possible, while minimizing damage to healthy brain tissue
- Radiation therapy: radiation may be used after surgery to kill any cancerous cells remaining after surgery, or as the main type of treatment if surgery is not appropriate
- Chemotherapy: drug-based therapies are generally used to target aggressive, fast-growing tumors, to treat children under the age of 3, or for the treatment of certain cancers that have been proven to respond well to chemotherapy
In most cases, especially involving malignant tumors, treatment will involve some combination of all three. The goal is to develop a treatment plan that is unique to your child and to give them the best chance of long-term survival while minimizing the risk of both short- and long-term side effects.
Living as a Survivor of Childhood Brain or Spinal Cord Cancer: Physical Side Effects
Some side effects may result from the growth of the tumor itself within the brain or spinal cord, while other side effects may stem from inescapable damage to the brain during treatment. A child’s brain is growing and developing much more quickly and actively than an adult’s; on the one hand, this can mean that a child’s brain may be able to compensate for damaged tissue, but on the other hand, a child’s brain is also more sensitive to radiation and other forms of treatment so may be more easily damaged.
Some of the most common physical side effects of a brain tumor include:
- Problems with physical coordination, muscle strength, and balance
- Issues with speech and communication
- Vision and/or hearing concerns
- General intelligence, memory, and learning skills
- Delayed growth and/or sexual maturation
Once treatment is complete, your child’s oncology team will work together to assess any possible damage to the brain and/or spinal cord and may recommend specific follow-up treatment(s) to cope with these or other side effects. Coping with physical side effects will often involve a range of different specialists, including physical and occupational therapists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, psychologists, and learning specialists.
A key part of successfully treating both short- and long-term side effects is maintaining excellent records of your child’s cancer treatment. These records will help new doctors, both in childhood and into adulthood, understand the entirety of your child’s medical history and make it easier for them to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for future medical concerns. Key pieces of information to compile include:
- Pathology reports from all biopsies and surgeries
- Results of all imaging tests (stored digitally)
- Operative reports summarizing all surgeries
- Discharge summaries for all hospital stays
- A comprehensive list of the final doses of all chemotherapy and other drugs
- Summaries of the doses and fields of all radiation therapies
About American Childhood Cancer Organization
American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) is a non-profit charity dedicated to helping kids with cancer and their families navigate the difficult journey from cancer diagnosis through survivorship. Internationally, ACCO is the sole U.S. member of Childhood Cancer International (CCI), the largest patient-support organization for childhood cancer in the world. Here in the United States, ACCO promotes the critical importance of ensuring continued funding into new and better treatment protocols for childhood cancer. And most importantly, ACCO is focused on the children: developing and providing educational tools for children fighting cancer and their families, empowering them in their understanding of childhood cancer and the medical decisions they must make during this difficult journey. All of ACCO’s resources are available free of charge for families coping with childhood cancer.