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Brain Tumor and Brain Cancer—Child

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Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


A brain tumor is a disease in which cells grow uncontrollably in the brain. Eventually these cells form a mass of tissue called a tumor. If the tumor invades nearby tissue or spreads to other parts of the body it is a malignant tumor. A malignant tumor is also known as cancer. Brain cancer can fall into two categories:

  • Primary brain cancer—begins in the brain.
  • Secondary or metastatic brain cancer—cancer started somewhere else in the body and spread to the brain. Also known as metastatic tumors.

If the tumor does not invade other tissue it is considered a benign tumor. Although a benign tumor does not spread, it can cause damage by pressing on nearby brain tissue.

Brain Tumor

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The cause of most primary brain cancer and benign tumors is unknown. Researchers believe that the tumors may be due to defects in genes. These defects trigger cells to grow uncontrollably.

Secondary brain cancer is caused by the cancer spreading to the brain from another site.

Risk Factors

These factors increase your child’s chance of developing brain tumors:

  • A genetic condition such as retinoblastoma
  • Being exposed to radiation, including CT scans
  • Being exposed to certain chemicals
  • A condition that affects the immune system
  • Family history of certain types of cancer


Symptoms depend on how large the tumor is and where it is located. Tumors can increase pressure and cause headaches. These headaches are different than they typical headaches everyone gets. The headaches may:

  • Worsen over a period of weeks to months
  • Be worse in the morning or causes you to wake during the night
  • Worsen with change of posture, straining, or coughing

The tumor can also affect the function of nearby tissue and cause:

  • Headaches different than normal headaches. Headaches due to brain tumors may:
  • Nausea and vomiting, especially early morning vomiting
  • Trouble with balance
  • Seizures
  • Personality changes
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Drowsiness
  • Depression
  • Weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Seizures
  • Vision or hearing changes, including double vision
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with speech


The doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will test muscle strength, coordination, reflexes, response to stimuli, and alertness. The doctor may also look into your child’s eyes to check for signs of brain swelling.

Pictures may be needed of structures inside your child's body. This can be done with:

A sample of your child's brain tissue may be removed for testing. This will help identify certain characteristics of the tumor. If it is cancer, your doctor will use results from a few different tests to determine the stage of the cancer. The stage help choose the best treatment options and make a prognosis.


Treatment depends on the type, size, and location of the cancer. It also depends on your child’s overall health. Some treatments can affect nearby healthy tissue. This may lead to physical or mental limitations.

In some cases, the doctor may recommend that your child takes medicine, such as:

  • Corticosteroids—to reduce swelling in the brain
  • Anticonvulsants—to prevent seizures

Examples of surgical procedures used to treat brain tumors include:

  • Craniotomy —opening the skull to remove the tumor or as much of the tumor as possible
  • Placement of a shunt—a long thin tube is placed in the brain to let fluid drain out of the brain

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. The doctor may choose to deliver the drugs into cerebrospinal fluid. This is fluid that surrounds the brain tissue.

Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. This is a common treatment for brain tumors. Radiation may be used alone or along with chemotherapy. Radiation may be:

  • External radiation therapy—Radiation is directed at the tumor from a source outside the body.
    • If you have a metastatic brain tumor, you will receive whole brain radiation therapy (WBRT). WRBT may also be used in people who have cancer in other areas of the body to prevent brain cancer.
    • If you have a primary brain tumor, you will receive more focused radiation therapy.
  • Internal radiation therapy—Radioactive materials are placed into the body near the cancer cells. This is used less often.
  • Stereotactic radiosurgery—More precise method of delivering higher doses of radiation. It help to target cancer cells and spare nearby healthy tissue. Used most often in metastatic brain tumors or in benign brain tumors, such as meningiomas.

Rehabilitation therapy is important to help regain lost skills or learn new ones. Rehabilitation therapy includes:

  • Physical therapy to help with walking, balance, and building strength
  • Occupational therapy to help with mastering life skills, such as dressing, eating, and using the toilet
  • Speech therapy to help express thoughts and overcome swallowing difficulties

Your child may also work with an educational specialist. They can help with the transition back to school and learning problems.


Since the exact cause is unknown, there is no way to prevent brain tumors.


American Brain Tumor Association


American Cancer Society



Canadian Cancer Society


Cancer Care Ontario



Brain tumor. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated May 28, 2013. Accessed June 11, 2013.

Brain tumors. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Available at: http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Brain%20Tumors.aspx. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Brain tumors. Boston Children's Hospital website. Available at: http://www.childrenshospital.org/az/Site659/mainpageS659P0.html. Updated 2010. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Brain tumors. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin website. Available at: http://www.chw.org/display/router.asp?DocID=22484. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Brain tumor. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/brain. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Pediatric brain and spinal cord tumor center. Comer Children’s Hospital, the University of Chicago website. Available at: http://www.uchicagokidshospital.org/specialties/cancer/brain-spinal/index.html. Accessed June 4, 2013.

Last reviewed May 2013 by Kari Kassir, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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