Brain Tumor and Brain Cancer—Child



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, then it is a malignant tumor. A malignant tumor is also known as cancer. Brain cancer can fall into 2 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. These are 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

Risk Factors

Factors that increase your child’s chance of developing brain tumors include:



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 the typical headaches that everyone gets. The headaches may:

  • Worsen over a period of weeks to months
  • Be worse in the morning or cause 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:

  • 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
  • Vision or hearing changes, including double vision
  • Memory loss
  • Problems with speech



You will be asked about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Muscle strength, coordination, reflexes, response to stimuli, and alertness will be tested. Your child’s eyes may be examined 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, results from a few different tests will be used to determine the stage of the cancer. The stage helps 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 advise that your child takes medication, 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 and Radiation Therapy

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 drugs may be delivered 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 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—This is a more precise method of delivering higher doses of radiation. It helps to target cancer cells and spare nearby healthy tissue. It is used most often in metastatic brain tumors or in benign brain tumors, such as meningiomas.

Rehabilitation Therapy

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 with 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. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
Accessed June 11, 2015.

Brain tumors. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Available at:
Updated June 2012. Accessed June 11, 2015.

Brain tumors. Boston Children’s Hospital website. Available at:
Updated 2013. Accessed June 11, 2015.

Brain tumors. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin website. Available at:
Accessed June 11, 2015.

General approach to care for children with brain and spinal cord tumors. National Cancer Institute website. Available at:
Updated August 12, 2014. Accessed June 11, 2015.

Pediatric brain and spinal cord tumor center. Comer Children’s Hospital, the University of Chicago website. Available at:
Accessed July 11, 2015.

Last reviewed June 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 5/27/2014

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