When classed together in a single grouping, cancers in the brain and spinal cord are the second most common type of childhood cancer after leukemia. Brain and spinal cord tumors account for about 25% of all childhood cancer diagnoses, with more than 4,000 new cases diagnosed every year in the United States. In reality, however, it can be difficult to discuss “brain tumors” in general terms: oncologists recognize at least nine different sub-classifications of brain tumors in children, such as brain stem gliomas and ependymomas for example, with still more sub-groupings within those broad classifications.
Moreover, it is important to note at the outset that a variety of factors can impact both the initial indicators of the tumor’s presence, as well as the appropriate course of treatment, factors such as: the tumor’s location in the brain, the size of the tumor, how quickly the tumor is growing, and for treatment purposes, whether the tumor can be removed surgically. Interestingly enough, the one distinction that oncologists do not make regarding brain tumors in children is whether the tumor is benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Because brain tumors occur in such a vital and sensitive area of the body, both types of tumors can be life-threatening.
Keeping those caveats in mind, what are the signs and symptoms of brain tumors in children? In many children, symptoms begin to show slowly over time as the tumor grows and begins to press on specific areas of the brain. This increase in intracranial pressure can lead to general health concerns such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Crossed eyes and/or blurred vision
- Balance problems
- Behavioral changes
- Drowsiness, potentially leading to coma
Of course, many of these concerns are symptoms of common childhood illness and may not be related to a tumor. However, should these symptoms persist and/or worsen over time, your pediatrician may recommend a visit to a neurologist or oncologist to conduct diagnostic testing.
One potential symptom—seizures—can develop both rapidly and unexpectedly. Should your child begin experiencing seizures, it is important to seek medical help immediately from a neurologist who can help determine if a tumor is causing the seizures.
In very young children, some additional symptoms of a brain tumor may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Developmental delays or a decline in intellectual and/or physical abilities
- An increase in head size, especially if accompanied by unusual cranial bulging
In older children, guardians and teachers may notice unusual fatigue, personality changes, or a decline in performance or attitude at school.
In addition to these generalized symptoms, children may exhibit more specific symptoms relating to the location of the tumor within the brain. For instance:
- Cerebrum (large, outer part of the brain): may cause weakness or numbness in a specific part of the body, usually only on one side; speech or comprehension problems; concerns about thinking, personality, and language skills; issues with vision.
- Cerebellum: may cause problems with walking or other routine bodily functions
- Basal ganglia: may cause unusual or abnormal body positions or movements
- Cranial nerves (not located in the cerebrum): may cause loss of hearing, problems with balance, weakness of facial muscles, or trouble swallowing
Again, it is important to note that brain tumors in children are extremely rare and even if you notice your child exhibiting one or more of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that your child has a brain tumor. These symptoms can be caused by a wide range of different medical issues. However, it is important that you speak to your pediatrician about your concerns. He or she will refer you to the appropriate specialist in order to ensure that your child gets an accurate diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible.
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.