AnatomyThe brain is a highly specialized organ. It serves as the control center for functions of the body and allows us to cope with our environment. Words, actions, thoughts, and feelings are centered in the brain. It is so complex that some theorists believe we will never be able to fully understand it. We do, however, know that each part of the brain has a specific, important function, often a profoundly important function, and each part contributes to the healthy functioning of our body.
Medical terms doctors may use to describe brain tumors include: -
- Primary vs. secondary: - Primary brain tumors originate in the brain. Secondary brain tumors are made up of cells that have spread (metastasized) to the brain from somewhere else in the body. In children, most brain tumors are primary. The opposite is true in adults.
- Benign vs. malignant: - Benign tumors are slow-growing, noncancerous, and do not spread to surrounding tissue. Malignant tumors, on the other hand, are cancerous. Fast-growing and aggressive, they can invade nearby tissue and also are more likely to recur after treatment. Though malignancies are generally associated with a worse outlook, in the brain, benign tumors can be just as serious, especially if they're in a critical location (such as the brain stem, which controls breathing) or grow large enough to press on vital brain structures.
- Localized vs. invasive: - A localized tumor is confined to one area and is generally easier to remove, as long as it's in an accessible part of the brain. An invasive tumor has spread to surrounding areas and is more difficult to remove completely.
- Grade: - The grade of a tumor indicates how aggressive it is. Today, most medical experts use a system designed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to identify brain tumors and help make a prognosis. The lower the grade, the less aggressive the tumor and the greater the chance for a cure. The higher the grade, the more aggressive the tumor and the harder it may be to cure.
What Causes A Brain Tumor?
Most brain tumors in children originate when a normal cell begins to grow abnormally and reproduce too rapidly. Eventually these cells develop into a mass called a tumor. The exact cause of this abnormal growth is unknown, though research continues on possible genetic and environmental causes.
Some kids are more susceptible to developing brain tumors due to certain genetic conditions. Diseases such as neurofibromatosis, von Hippel-Lindau disease, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and retinoblastoma are all associated with a higher risk of brain tumors.
Signs And SymptomsA brain tumor can cause symptoms in a number of ways: by directly destroying brain cells, by causing swelling at the tumor site, by causing a buildup of fluid in the brain (hydrocephalus), and by increasing pressure within the skull. A range of symptoms can develop as a result.
Signs or symptoms vary depending on a child's age and the location of the tumor, but may include: -
- weakness of the face, trunk, arms, or legs
- slurred speech
- difficulty standing or walking
- poor coordination
- in babies, a rapidly enlarging head
Because early warning signs can be gradual and may mimic those of other common childhood conditions, brain tumors can be difficult to diagnose.
TreatmentMost pediatric brain tumor patients require treatment with some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Advancements in all three areas have contributed to better outcomes over the last few decades.
The care of a child with a brain tumor is very complicated and requires close coordination between many members of a medical team. Members of this team typically include:
- a pediatric neuro-oncologist (a doctor who specializes in treating cancers of the brain or spine)
- a pediatric neurologist (a doctor who specializes in disorders of the nervous system)
- a pediatric neurosurgeon (a surgeon who operates on the brain or spine)
- a radiation therapist (a specialist who administers radiation therapy)
- rehabilitation medicine specialists, including speech, physical, and occupational therapists
- psychologists and social workers
These experts must choose a child's therapy very carefully because the potential for long-term effects, particularly from radiation, is high. (Radiation therapy, though often effective, can cause injury to the developing brain, especially in younger patients.) Striking the delicate balance between giving just enough therapy to cure the child, but not so much as to damage healthy cells and cause unnecessary side effects, is probably the most difficult aspect of treating brain tumors.
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