What causes spinal cord tumors in children?
When we think of the spine, or backbone, we generally think of it as the part of the skeleton that enables us to stand upright and walk. However, the bones that hold us upright have a second, and potentially even more important, responsibility: protecting a delicate column of nerve tissues that carry messages between the body and the brain. These messages between body and brain are what enables our body to function normally.
Put simply, a spinal cord tumor is an abnormal growth of nerve cells inside the spinal column. For most people, however, the more important question is: what causes the nerve cells in the spinal cord to grow abnormally into a tumor? On-going research indicates that most spinal cord tumors are probably caused by mutations—or changes—to the genetic structure of the nerve cells. Certain mutations occurring within the genes that control cell growth can cause the mutated cells to grow abnormally. If the mutations occur in oncogenes, cells may grow and/or replicate too rapidly, while if the mutations occur in tumor suppressor genes, cells may not die at the right time; in both cases, the result is a clump of abnormal cells that will, eventually, become a tumor.
But what causes these gene mutations? In the vast majority of cases, scientists simply do not know why these gene mutations occur. In a limited number of cases, the mutation may be inherited from one or both parents; in most cases, however, the mutation is random—an unfortunate accident that occurs during the natural lifecycle of the cell—and cannot be prevented or predicted. There are very few risk factors and no known lifestyle choices that impact a child’s risk of developing a spinal cord tumor.
Are there any risk factors related to spinal cord tumors?
A “risk factor” is anything that may impact a child’s risk of developing cancer. There are very few risk factors associated with spinal cord tumors in children; as noted above, most cases are likely the result of random and unpredictable gene mutations. However, in some rare cases, gene changes stemming from inherited genetic syndromes may carry an elevated risk of developing a spinal cord or brain tumor. These inherited and genetic syndromes include:
- Neurofibromatosis type 1 (von Recklinghausen disease)
- Neurofibromatosis type 2
- Tuberous sclerosis
- Von Hippel-Lindau disease
- Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- Gorlin syndrome
- Turcot syndrome
- Cowden syndrome
- Hereditary retinoblastoma
- Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome
The only other known risk factor for spinal cord tumors (and brain tumors) is exposure to radiation. In children, the danger of radiation is especially acute because the delicate cells of the central nervous system, including the spinal cord, are growing and replicating especially quickly. Today, physicians understand the unique dangers of radiation exposure in children and care is taken to minimize exposure, for example utilizing radiation-based scans such as x-rays only when necessary.
In addition to radiation-based imaging technology, radiation can be a valuable and highly-effective tool to help fight other types of cancers. When battling childhood cancers, oncologists must weigh the potential benefits of radiation therapy with the risk of developing radiation-induced spinal cord tumors. For children under the age of 3, most oncologists will seek to avoid the use of radiation entirely if at all possible. For some older children, the life-saving benefits of radiation therapy may outweigh the small risk of developing a spinal cord tumor or other secondary cancer.
Can spinal cord tumors be prevented?
When facing the devastating diagnosis of a childhood spinal cord tumor, parents often need to know if there is anything they could have done differently to prevent their child from developing cancer. The answer can be both frustrating and reassuring. Spinal cord tumors are nearly always the result of random gene mutations and can neither be predicted nor prevented. The one exception may be, as noted above, the use of radiation to treat another type of cancer; however, in these rare cases, the choice to use radiation therapy was likely the best possible—and maybe the only—option to fight that cancer and save the child’s life.
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.
For additional information about childhood cancer or on ACCO, or to order resources for you or your child, please visit our website at www.acco.org.