Anaplastic Astrocytoma

Medically reviewed by Christina Chun, MPH on November 15, 2017Written by Jill Seladi-Schulman PhD on November 15, 2017

What is an anaplastic astrocytoma?

Astrocytomas are a type of brain tumor. They develop in star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes, which form part of the tissue that protects the nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord.

Astrocytomas are classified by their grade. Grade 1 and grade 2 astrocytomas grow slowly and are benign, meaning they’re not cancerous. Grade 3 and grade 4 astrocytomas grow faster and are malignant, which means they’re cancerous.

An anaplastic astrocytoma is a grade 3 astrocytoma. While they’re rare, they can be very serious if left untreated. Keep reading to learn more about anaplastic astrocytomas, including their symptoms and the survival rates of people who have them.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of an anaplastic astrocytoma can vary based on exactly where the tumor is, but they generally include:

  • headaches
  • lethargy or drowsiness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • behavioral changes
  • seizures
  • memory loss
  • vision problems
  • coordination and balance problems

What causes it?

Researchers aren’t sure what causes anaplastic astrocytomas. However, they may be associated with:

  • genetics
  • immune system abnormalities
  • exposure to UV rays and certain chemicals

People with certain genetic disorders, such as neurofibromatosis type I (NF1), Li-Fraumeni syndrome, or tuberous sclerosis, have a higher risk of developing anaplastic astrocytoma. If you’ve had radiation therapy on your brain, you may also be at a higher risk.

How is it diagnosed?

Anaplastic astrocytomas are rare, so your doctor will start with a physical exam to rule out any other possible causes of your symptoms.

They may also use a neurological exam to see how your nervous system is working. This usually involves testing your balance, coordination, and reflexes. You may be asked to answer some basic questions so they can evaluate your speech and mental clarity.

If your doctor thinks you may have a tumor, they’ll likely use an MRI scan or CT scan to get a better look at your brain. If you do have an anaplastic astrocytoma, these images will also show its size and exact location.

How is it treated?

There are several options for treating an anaplastic astrocytoma, depending on the size and location of the tumor.

Surgery

Surgery is usually the first step in treating an anaplastic astrocytoma. In some cases, your doctor may be able to remove all or most of the tumor. However, anaplastic astrocytomas grow quickly, so your doctor may only be able to safely remove part of the tumor.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy

If your tumor can’t be removed with surgery, or only part of it was removed, you may need radiation therapy. Radiation therapy destroys rapidly dividing cells, which tend to be cancerous. This will help to shrink the tumor or destroy any parts that weren’t removed during surgery.

You may also be given chemotherapy medication, such as temozolomide (Temodar), during or after radiation therapy.

Survival rate and life expectancy

According to the American Cancer Society, the percentages of people with an anaplastic astrocytoma who live for five years after being diagnosed are:

  • 49 percent for those aged 22 to 44
  • 29 percent for those aged 45 to 54
  • 10 percent for those aged 55 to 64

It’s important to remember that these are only averages. Several factors can affect your survival rate, including:

  • the size and location of your tumor
  • whether the tumor was completely or partially removed with surgery
  • whether the tumor is new or recurring
  • your overall health

Your doctor can give you a better idea of your prognosis based on these factors.

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