Childhood Spinal Cord Tumor Cancer – Stages and Prognosis
The central nervous system (CNS) is composed of the brain and the spinal cord, a delicate and sensitive column of nerves protected by the boney vertebrae of the spine. Statistically, CNS cancers are all grouped together as “brain and spinal cord tumors”, but of course in reality, there are a number of different and distinct types of spinal cord tumors, and each specific tumor requires a unique treatment approach and carries its own outlook for long-term survivorship.
When diagnosing cancer in either children or adults, oncologists usually differentiate between malignant (cancerous) cell growths or benign (non-cancerous) tumors. This distinction is much less important for spinal cord tumors, however. First, spinal cord tumors may spread within the CNS but rarely spread into other organs. Second, both malignant and benign tumors can be extremely life-threatening. As the tumor grows, it can press on and potentially restrict critical tissues of the CNS. Thus, both malignant and benign tumors can cause similar symptoms and have similar prognosis factors; both may require an aggressive treatment approach.
There is another critical difference between spinal cord tumors and other types of childhood cancer, also related to diagnosis: staging. When diagnosing most types of childhood cancer, oncologists will determine the cancer’s stage, or how far it has spread beyond the original point of growth. However, staging is not usually appropriate for spinal cord tumors, because as noted above, they do not, in most cases, spread into other organs or body systems. Instead, when determining an appropriate treatment option for a spinal cord tumor, oncologists will focus on key “prognosis factors”.
Key Prognosis Factors for Spinal Cord Tumors
Rapid advances in our knowledge of the central nervous system, as well as in available medical technology, mean that treatment options for children coping with a spinal cord tumor are more focused, more powerful, and more effective than ever before. And for many children, this means that the prognosis, or outlook, is excellent: statistically, about 75% of children with a tumor of the central nervous system are likely to survive more than 5 years.
However, a very basic statistic about 5-year survival rates hides a great deal of variation between specific types of tumors. In fact, each child’s long-term prognosis depends on a unique assessment of his or her key prognosis factors. These prognosis factors determine the unique treatment approach appropriate for your child’s unique diagnosis. In general, the key prognosis factors for most types of spinal cord tumors include:
- The type of tumor
- The size of the tumor at diagnosis
- The location of the tumor at diagnosis
- The “grade” of the tumor, or how quickly it is growing (grade I and II tumors usually grow slowly; grade III and IV tumors are more invasive)
- How much, if any, of the tumor can be removed with surgery
- Whether the tumorous cells have particular gene changes (mutations)
- Whether the tumor has spread to other parts of the CNS
- Whether tumorous cells have spread beyond the CNS
- The child’s age at diagnosis
- The child’s functional abilities as impacted by the tumor at diagnosis
If your child has been diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor (whether benign or malignant), his or her oncologist will help you understand all of these prognosis factors as they relate to your child and his or her specific type of tumor. While the general guidelines listed here and in other similar literature are important, they are just that: general. Only your child’s oncology team can determine your child’s key prognosis factors and the implications of those prognosis for late effects and long-term survivorship.
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.