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Health Information For Parents
When brain cells grow abnormally or out of control, a tumor (a mass of cells) can form. If the tumor puts pressure on certain areas of the brain, it can affect how the body functions.
When discovered early enough, brain tumors are usually treatable. Many that are slow-growing are cured with surgery alone. Other types that are faster-growing might need additional treatment with radiation therapy or chemotherapy, or both.
There are many different types of brain tumors. Some are cancerous (meaning they can spread to parts of the body outside the brain), and others aren’t. Doctors categorize a tumor based on its location, the type of cells involved, and how quickly it grows.
Tumors are grouped into these categories:
In children, some of the most common types of primary brain tumors are:
Doctors don’t know what causes brain tumors, but researchers think there may be genetic and environmental causes.
Some kids who have certain genetic conditions have a greater chance of developing brain tumors. Diseases like neurofibromatosis, von Hippel-Lindau disease, and Li-Fraumeni syndrome are all associated with a higher risk of brain tumors.
A brain tumor can cause symptoms by directly pressing on the surrounding parts of the brain that control certain body functions, or by causing a buildup of spinal fluid and pressure throughout the brain (a condition known as hydrocephalus).
Signs or symptoms vary depending on a child’s age and the location of the tumor, but may include:
Because symptoms might develop gradually and can be like those of other common childhood conditions, brain tumors can be difficult to diagnose. If you ever have concerns about symptoms your child is having, talk with your child’s doctor right away.
A doctor who thinks a child might have a brain tumor will do a thorough neurological exam and order imaging studies of the brain: a CT (computed tomography) scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, or possibly both. These let doctors see inside the brain and identify any areas that look abnormal. Although both are painless, they do require children to be still. Some children, especially younger ones, may need to be sedated for these scans.
If imaging studies reveal a brain tumor, then surgery is likely to be the next step. A pediatric neurosurgeon will try to remove the tumor; if complete removal is not possible, then partial removal or a biopsy (removal of a sample for study) may be done to confirm the diagnosis.
The tumor sample is tested and examined under a microscope to learn what type of tumor it is and whether it is low-grade or high-grade. Using this information, doctors can develop the best treatment plan for a child with a brain tumor.
Treatment for a brain tumor requires a team of medical specialists. Most kids with brain tumors need some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Advancements in all three treatment areas in the last few decades have contributed to better outcomes.
Caring for a child with a brain tumor is very complicated and requires close coordination between members of the medical team, which typically will include:
These experts will choose a child’s therapy very carefully. Finding a treatment that will be effective and cure the child but not cause unacceptable side effects is one of the most difficult aspects of treating brain tumors.
Pediatric neurosurgeons are having more success than ever helping cure children with brain tumors. This is partly because of new technologies in the operating room and partly because an aggressive surgical approach at diagnosis can greatly increase the chance for a cure.
Neurosurgeons may use stereotactic devices, which help target tumors by providing 3D images of the brain during surgery. Staged surgeries are also more common. This means that instead of trying to remove a large tumor all at once, surgeons will take out only part of the tumor at diagnosis. The patient will then get chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to shrink the tumor. The surgeon then operates a second or even a third time to try to remove the rest of the tumor.
After surgery, some patients may not need any more treatment beyond observation (periodic checkups and imaging scans to watch for problems). Many, however, will need radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of both.
Radiation therapy — the use of high-energy light to kill rapidly multiplying cells — is very effective in the treatment of many pediatric brain tumors. However, because the developing brain in children younger than 10 years old (and especially those younger than 5) is highly sensitive to its effects, radiation therapy can have serious long-term consequences. These may include seizures, stroke, developmental delays, learning problems, growth problems, and hormone problems.
The methods for giving radiation therapy have changed significantly over the last several decades. New computer-assisted technologies allow doctors to construct 3D radiation fields that accurately target tumor tissue while avoiding injury to important brain structures like the hearing centers.
Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It is often given through a special long-lasting intravenous (IV) catheter called a central line, and may require frequent hospital stays.
Chemo is routinely used for brain tumors in kids with positive results. Although chemotherapy has many short-term side effects (such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and hair loss), it has fewer long-term side effects than radiation therapy. In fact, many children with brain tumors are treated with chemo in order to delay or avoid radiation treatment.
Late effects are problems that patients can develop after cancer treatments have ended. For survivors of pediatric brain tumors, late effects may include cognitive delay (problems with learning and thinking), seizures, growth abnormalities, hormone deficiencies, vision and hearing problems, and the possibility of developing a second cancer, including a second brain tumor.
Because these problems sometimes don’t become apparent until years after treatment, careful observation and medical follow-up are needed to watch for them.
In some cases, short-term effects might improve with the help of physical, occupational, or speech therapy and may continue to improve as the brain heals.
In other cases, kids may have side effects that last longer, including learning disabilities; medical problems such as diabetes, delayed growth, or delayed or early puberty; physical disabilities related to movement, speech, or swallowing; and emotional problems linked to the stresses of diagnosis and treatment. Some of these problems may become more severe over time.
Be aware of the potential for physical and psychological late effects, especially when your child returns to school, activities, and friendships. Talk to teachers about how treatment has affected your child and discuss any necessary accommodations, including a limited schedule, additional rest time or bathroom visits, modifications in homework, testing, or recess activities, and medication scheduling. Your doctor can offer advice on how to make this time easier.
Parents often struggle with how much to tell a child who is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Though there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this, experts do agree that it’s best to be honest — but to fit the details to your child’s degree of understanding and emotional maturity.
Give as much information as your child needs, but not more. And when explaining treatment, try to break it down into steps. Addressing each part as it comes — visiting various doctors, having a special machine take pictures of the brain, needing an operation — can make the big picture less overwhelming. The members of the brain tumor care team are experts at helping families talk with the child and siblings if a family needs help with this.
Kids should be reassured that the brain tumor is not the result of anything they did, and that it’s OK to be angry or sad. Really listen to your child’s fears, and when you feel alone, seek support. Your hospital’s social workers can put you in touch with other families who’ve been there and may have insights to share. You can also connect with other caregivers or cancer survivors online.
Also be aware that it’s common for siblings to feel neglected, jealous, and angry when a child is seriously ill. Explain as much as they can understand, and enlist family members, teachers, and friends to help keep some sense of normalcy for them.
And finally, as hard as it may be, try to take care of yourself. Parents who get the support they need are better able to support their child.
Neurocutaneous syndromes are genetic disorders that lead to tumor growth in various parts of the body. Learn how to maximize the quality of life for children with these diseases.
Long-term side effects, or late effects, happen to many cancer survivors. With early diagnosis and proper follow-up care, most late effects can be treated or cured.
It’s normal for kids to have hair loss, skin changes, or weight gain during treatment. This article offers tips for helping kids feel better about their appearance.
When chemotherapy and other treatments attack cancer cells, they can affect some of the body’s healthy cells too. As a teen, you’ll want to know what this can mean to your fertility.
Cancer is a serious illness that needs special treatment. Find out more about how kids can cope with cancer.
When kids get cancer, it can often be treated and cured. Find out more in this article for kids.
Side effects of cancer treatment can include flu-like symptoms, hair loss, and blood clotting problems. After treatment ends, most side effects go away.
These cancers are the most common type of cancer in children. When discovered early, they often can be cured.
Get the basics on cancer and cancer treatments in this article.
Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with medicines that stop the growth of cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is a big word for treatment with medicines used to help people who have cancer. This medicine kills the cancer cells that are making the person sick.
Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, irradiation, or X-ray therapy, is one of the most common forms of cancer treatment.
More than half of all people with cancer are treated with radiation therapy. Get the facts on radiation therapy, including what it is, what to expect, and how to cope with side effects.
Chemotherapy (chemo) is treatment with medicines that stop the growth of cancer cells. Find out how chemo works and what to expect when getting treatment.
If the brain is a central computer that controls all the functions of the body, then the nervous system is like a network that relays messages back and forth to different parts of the body. Find out how they work in this Body Basics article.
It’s common to put your own needs last when caring for a child you love. But to be the best you can be, you need to take care of yourself, too. Here are some tips to help you recharge.
Visit our Cancer Center for teens to get information and advice on treating and coping with cancer.
It’s unusual for teens to have cancer, but it can happen. The good news is that most will survive and return to their everyday lives. Learn about how to cope if you or someone you know has cancer.
Different kinds of childhood cancer have different signs, symptoms, treatments, and outcomes. But today, most kids with cancer get better.
From treatments and prevention to coping with the emotional aspects of cancer, the Cancer Center provides comprehensive information that parents need.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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