“What is my child’s prognosis?” This seemingly simple but critical question is often among the first that parents will ask their child’s oncologist after hearing that their child has been diagnosed with cancer. Yet while the question may be simple, answering it can be extremely complicated. In general terms, oncologists can provide statistics relating to 5-year survival rates for many different types of brain tumors in children. These general statistics, however, cannot predict an outcome for any one child. Each child’s individual prognosis will depend on the unique circumstances of their tumor and its response to treatment.
What is a 5-year survival rate and why doesn’t it tell the whole story? The 5-year survival rate refers to the percentage of children who live at least five years after they have been diagnosed with a brain tumor. As a simple statistic, it can provide some basic information about our ability to treat many different types of brain tumors. However, as with all “simple statistics”, it has three significant limitations:
- It only takes into account children who were treated at least five years ago. It does not take into account significant improvements in today’s treatment options.
- It can indicate prognosis for a particular class of brain tumors, but does not show differences in prognosis rates for specific tumor types.
- It does not account for each child’s unique diagnosis and key prognosis factors so, as noted above, it cannot predict an outcome for any one child.
What are the key prognosis factors for childhood brain tumors?
As noted above, while five-year survival rates can be useful in general terms, each child’s prognosis will depend heavily on a unique assessment of her or her prognosis factors. These factors will impact the treatment approach and help determine your child’s potential for long-term survivorship.
Key prognosis factors for childhood brain tumors include:
- The type of tumor
- The grade of the tumor, or how quickly it is likely to grow
- The size of the tumor
- The location of the tumor
- Whether the tumor can be removed completely with surgery (if at all)
- Whether the tumorous cells have particular gene mutations
- Whether the tumor has spread to other parts of the brain or spinal cord via the cerebrospinal fluid
- Whether tumorous cells have spread beyond the central nervous system
- The child’s age
- The child’s functional abilities as impacted by the brain tumor
Unlike many other forms of cancer, brain tumors rarely spread to areas of the body outside the central nervous system. Instead, brain tumors can be life-threatening because of the damage they can inflict on the delicate and highly critical tissues of the brain and spinal cord. For this reason, doctors do not use two prognosis factors commonly used when discussing other types of childhood cancers: benign v. malignant and “staging”.
Five-Year Survival Rates for Common Types of Brain Tumors in Children
Based on information from the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (covering children treated between 1995 and 2010), we can provide five-year survival rates for some of the most common types of brain tumors diagnosed in children. As noted above, however, it is important to remember that these statistics do not accurately represent the chances of long-term survival for any one specific child.
- Philocytic astrocytoma: 95%
- Oligodendroglioma: 90% – 95%
- Fibrillary (diffuse) astrocytoma: 80% – 85%
- Ependymoma (including anaplastic ependymoma: 75%
- PNETs (including medullablastoma and pineoblastoma): 60% – 65%
- Anaplastic astrocytoma: 30%
- Glioblastoma: 20%
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.