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This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Dramatic improvements in survival have been achieved for children and adolescents with cancer. Between 1975 and 2010, childhood cancer mortality decreased by more than 50%. Childhood and adolescent cancer survivors require close monitoring because cancer therapy side effects may persist or develop months or years after treatment. Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for specific information about the incidence, type, and monitoring of late effects in childhood and adolescent cancer survivors.
Primary brain tumors are a diverse group of diseases that together constitute the most common solid tumor of childhood. Brain tumors are classified by histology, but tumor location and extent of spread are also important factors that affect treatment and prognosis. Immunohistochemical analysis, cytogenetic and molecular genetic findings, and measures of proliferative activity are increasingly used in tumor diagnosis and classification.
The Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States (CBTRUS) estimates that approximately 4,300 U.S. children are diagnosed each year.
The classification of childhood central nervous system (CNS) tumors is based on histology and location. Tumors are classically categorized as infratentorial, supratentorial, parasellar, or spinal. Immunohistochemical analysis, cytogenetic and molecular genetic findings, and measures of proliferative activity are increasingly used in tumor diagnosis and classification.
Primary CNS spinal cord tumors comprise approximately 1% to 2% of all childhood CNS tumors. The classification of spinal cord tumors is based on histopathologic characteristics of the tumor and does not differ from that of primary brain tumors.
Infratentorial (posterior fossa) tumors include the following:
Supratentorial tumors include the following:
Parasellar tumors include the following:
Spinal cord tumors include the following:
Important concepts that should be understood by those treating and caring for a child who has a brain tumor or spinal cord tumor include the following:
(Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information about possible long-term or late effects.)
Presently, there is no uniformly accepted staging system for most childhood brain tumors. These tumors are classified and treated on the basis of their histology and location within the brain (refer to the Table below). With advances in molecular data, it is conceivable that genomic factors will refine classification approaches and will be increasingly used to stratify patients entered on clinical trials.
Relapse is not uncommon in both low-grade and malignant childhood brain tumors and may occur many years after initial treatment. Disease may occur at the primary tumor site or, especially in malignant tumors, at noncontiguous central nervous system (CNS) sites. Systemic relapse is rare but may occur in some tumor types. At recurrence, a complete evaluation for extent of relapse is indicated for all malignant tumors and, at times, for lower-grade lesions. Biopsy or surgical re-resection may be necessary for confirmation of relapse or the diagnosis of tumor transformation, which can include a change in grade and molecular makeup.[1,2] Other entities, such as secondary tumor and treatment-related intratumoral necrosis or frank brain necrosis, may be clinically indistinguishable from tumor recurrence. The determination of the need for surgical intervention must be individualized on the basis of the initial tumor type, the length of time between initial treatment and the reappearance of the lesion, and other clinical parameters.
Early-phase therapeutic trials may be available for selected patients via Children's Oncology Group phase I institutions, the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium, or other entities.
There is no uniformly accepted staging system for childhood primary spinal cord tumors. These tumors are classified and treated based on their location within the spinal cord, tumor extent at diagnosis, and histology. Refer to the following PDQ summaries for more information on the staging and treatment of newly diagnosed and recurrent childhood spinal cord tumors:
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
This summary was comprehensively reviewed.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ® - NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of childhood brain and spinal cord tumors. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the NCI website's Email Us. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/hp/child-brain-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389453]
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Managing Cancer Care page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov website can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the website's Email Us.
Last Revised: 2020-03-17
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