Childhood brain tumors can be serious, but treatment options are constantly improving. Your child’s outlook depends on the type of tumor they have and where it’s located.

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Though rare, brain tumors are the second most common kind of cancer affecting children, following leukemia.

There are many different types of children’s brain tumors, some of which are benign and some of which are malignant (cancerous). The type of brain tumor a child has determines how serious it is and what kind of treatments are needed.

A brain tumor diagnosis in children can feel devastating — but there’s hope. These days, treatments have advanced, and more children are surviving.

Here, we’ll discuss everything parents need to know about children’s brain tumors, including symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis.

Children’s brain tumors are masses that form in the brain due to abnormal cell growth. Not all of these tumors are cancerous — some are benign.

There are many different types of brain tumors in children, and the different types depend on the type of cells they are composed of and where in the brain they are located.

Types include:

  • Low-grade astrocytomas (or low-grade gliomas): Low-grade astrocytomas are the most common type of benign (noncancerous) children’s brain tumor.
  • High-grade astrocytomas and ependymomas: High-grade astrocytomas and ependymomas are both malignant and form in the glial brain cells. Glial cells help hold nerve cells in place.
  • Medulloblastomas: Medulloblastoma is another type of malignant tumor that forms in the cerebellum and can spread to other areas of the brain or spinal cord.

Symptoms of children’s brain tumors depend on where the tumor is located, its size, and the age of your child. It’s also important to understand that many symptoms of brain tumors are symptoms of other conditions as well.

Some potential symptoms of brain tumors in kids include:

  • headaches, especially in the morning
  • headaches along with vomiting
  • nausea and vomiting
  • balance issues
  • difficulty walking
  • changes in vision, hearing, and speech
  • excessive fatigue
  • personality and behavior changes
  • an enlargement of the head (most common in babies)
  • seizures

The cause of brain tumors is currently unknown. It’s been hypothesized that children’s brain tumors are caused by genetic or environmental factors or a combination of these.

It’s not entirely clear what causes brain tumors. But researchers have found associations between certain factors and an increased risk of developing a brain tumor.

Here’s what we know:

  • Children assigned male at birth are slightly more likely to get a malignant brain tumor, while children assigned female at birth are slightly more likely to have benign brain tumors.
  • Children who have been exposed to radiation treatments to the head are at higher risk of developing a brain tumor.
  • Children whose birthing parent was over age 40 when giving birth may have an increased risk.
  • Children with certain inherited genetic conditions may have an increased risk.

If brain tumors are not addressed, symptoms can become more serious. Depending on the type, location, and size of the tumor, complications can include:

  • weakness and numbness in different parts of the body
  • trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • trouble walking
  • issues eating and swallowing
  • bladder and bowel issues

Brain tumors can also cause serious seizures.

Whenever possible, brain tumors are removed through surgery. In these surgeries, the surgeon aims to remove as much of the tumor as possible without harming the brain. These surgeries can be long and extensive.

Depending on how much of the tumor was removed and the type of tumor it was, further treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy, may be necessary to shrink the tumor and kill the cancer cells.

Children may also need medications to manage their symptoms. If they have seizures, they may be given anticonvulsants. If they have brain swelling, steroid medications may be an option.

The chance of surviving a childhood brain tumor differs from one child to another. Your child’s prognosis will depend on several factors, such as:

  • whether all the cancerous tissue was removed after surgery
  • the kind of tumor your child has
  • where in the brain the tumor was located
  • your child’s age
  • whether the tumor comes back after treatment

Treatment for children’s brain tumors is constantly improving. According to the American Cancer Society, these days, about 3 out of every 4 children will live 5 years or more after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

If your child’s doctor suspects a brain tumor, they will start by doing a physical examination. They may test your child’s reflexes, balance, and coordination. They may also look at the back of your child’s eyes with a special instrument that can check for swelling in the brain.

The process of diagnosing a brain tumor in a child may also involve the following tests:

  • CT scan or MRI: Your child may have a CT scan or MRI to look for signs of a brain tumor.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests may be used to look for markers of brain tumors in your child’s blood.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy may be taken of the tumor to determine what type of tumor it is.

Do brain tumors spread?

Most brain tumors don’t spread to other parts of the brain, but some do. Highly aggressive cancerous brain tumors may spread to other parts of the body, but that is rare.

Does a family history of brain tumors increase risk?

It’s possible that a family history of brain tumors increases your child’s chances of developing a brain tumor, especially if close family members have had them.

Which inherited conditions increase the risk of brain tumors?

Inherited conditions that increase risk include:

Brain tumors in children are rare, but they are the second most common type of childhood cancer. It’s important to contact your child’s pediatrician if they have any unusual symptoms that could be a sign of a brain tumor, but keep in mind that most symptoms of brain tumors are similar to other childhood diseases.

If your child is diagnosed with a brain tumor, there are many treatment options available to them.