Childhood Brain Cancer Treatment
The brain is the “command center” for our entire central nervous system, yet despite its critical role in every aspect of human life, it is one of the most delicate organs in the entire body. Any abnormal growth, or tumor, in the brain—whether technically malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous)—can cause serious damage to the healthy brain tissue and significantly impact the body’s ability to function normally. Therefore, treating a brain tumor requires taking into consideration
- how to best remove/eliminate the tumor;
- how to relieve symptoms caused by the tumor; and
- how to minimize damage to the healthy tissue of the brain.
As with all types of childhood cancer, every child will have a unique treatment plan based on his or her specific type of cancer; for brain tumors, the treatment plan will depend specifically on the type of tumor, the size and location of the tumor, the grade of the tumor, and the impact of the tumor on healthy brain tissue. In general, however, treatment for brain tumors in children generally involves three types of treatment:
- Radiation Therapy
Whenever possible, treatment will usually begin with surgery, with the goal of removing all or at least most of the tumor. Radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy may follow surgery in order to (1) eliminate any remaining tumor cells that could not be removed during the surgery and/or (2) prevent the tumor from re-growing if possible. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy will play a more central role in treating brain tumors that cannot be safely removed through surgery; however, because surgery is usually the first line of treatment, this blog will focus on surgical options for brain tumors in children.
Surgical Treatment for Brain Tumors in Children
The goal of surgery as treatment for a brain tumor is, in most cases, to remove or destroy as much of the tumor as possible while minimizing damage to the surrounding healthy tissues of the brain. In some cases, the surgery may serve as a simultaneous opportunity to conduct a biopsy, which involves collecting a sample of the tumor to be examined under a microscope; this may be required to determine the type of tumor and whether the tumor has specific gene mutations (changes) that could impact long-term prognosis. The biopsy, if necessary, will help your child’s oncology team determine post-surgical treatment options.
The most common type of surgical procedure for treatment of a brain tumor is a craniotomy. Depending on the location of the tumor, and whether brain function must be assessed during the procedure, the child may be under general anesthesia or may remain awake under local anesthesia. The surgeon will remove a piece of skull (the boney area of the head that protects the brain) large enough to enable him or her to insert instruments and view the brain under operation, if necessary and if possible. The tumor may be cut out with a scalpel or special scissors or it may be suctioned out with a specialized device, and then the removed piece of bone reattached to the skull.
Today’s surgeons utilize modern imaging technology as much as possible both before and during surgery to precisely locate and map the edges of the tumor. Imaging tests such as MRIs and CT scans before surgery, and ultrasounds during surgery, maximize the surgeon’s ability to identify and remove tumorous cells while reducing the risk of removing healthy tissue. Some specialized imaging tests, such as Functional MRIs, Intraoperative cortical stimulation, and intraoperative imaging also enable the surgeon to detect a particular function of the brain to help remove the tumor as safely and as extensively as possible.
The idea of brain surgery can be scary, for children and parents alike. Luckily, our knowledge of the brain continues to advance each and every day, as does our ability to harness the power of advanced tools and techniques, making brain surgery safer and more successful than ever. We encourage you to share your concerns—and your child’s concerns—with your child’s oncologist and surgical team right up front, so they can ensure that you and your child are as comfortable as possible throughout the entire treatment process.
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.