Astrocytomas are tumors that typically form in your brain, but can develop in your spinal cord as well. Most astrocytomas develop randomly. Treatment varies depending on the type, but surgery is usually the first option.
Astrocytomas are tumors that develop in your central nervous system (CNS) that grow from star-shaped astrocyte cells. They usually develop in your brain but can develop in your spinal cord as well. Astrocytomas can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Astrocytes are glial cells (the type of cells that provide supportive tissue in your brain). Other glial cells include oligodendrocytes and ependymal cells. Astrocytoma is the most common glioma. A glioma is a tumor that forms when glial cells grow out of control.
Healthcare providers use grades to describe different types of astrocytomas. They don’t use a staging system as they do for many other types of cancer.
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Astrocytomas may be cancerous or noncancerous. The World Health Organization (WHO) categorizes astrocytomas into four grades. The grades depend on how fast astrocytomas grow and the likelihood that they’ll spread to (infiltrate) nearby brain tissue. Grade 1 astrocytomas are the mildest, while grade 4 astrocytomas are the most aggressive.
Grade 1 astrocytomas, which are noncancerous, include:
Cancerous astrocytomas include:
Astrocytomas can affect anyone, but different grades tend to affect people at different ages:
Grade 3 and 4 astrocytomas are more likely to affect adults assigned male at birth than adults assigned female at birth.
Different grades of astrocytoma are more common than others:
In adults, glioblastoma (grade 4 astrocytoma) is the most common type of brain cancer.
The symptoms of astrocytoma can vary based on its size and location. Common symptoms include:
See a healthcare provider as soon as possible if you have these symptoms.
Researchers don’t know the exact cause of most astrocytomas. The majority of these tumors are sporadic, meaning that they happen randomly. So far, researchers have only identified two known risk factors for astrocytomas: radiation exposure and genetics.
However, recent studies have revealed that a mutation (change) in the IDH1 gene contributes significantly to the development of low-grade astrocytomas. This gene helps provide energy to your cells. Its mutation results in the production of a chemical called 2-HG, which, over time, builds up inside healthy astrocytes. This buildup causes the cells to become abnormal, causing astrocytomas.
Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from radiation therapy, increases your risk of developing astrocytoma.
For example, children who receive prophylactic (preventive) radiation for acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) may be 22 times more likely to develop a central nervous system tumor, such as astrocytoma, within about five to 10 years.
The following rare genetic conditions are associated with the development of astrocytomas:
It can be difficult for healthcare providers to detect or suspect astrocytomas, as their symptoms are similar to other neurological conditions.
Regardless, your provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history. They’ll likely perform a neurological exam. This can help determine where in your brain or spinal cord the issue may be.
Your provider may order a brain imaging test. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the best imaging test for finding and diagnosing astrocytoma. If you’re unable to have an MRI scan due to having a pacemaker or joint implant, a computed tomography (CT scan) is the next best option.
If something abnormal appears on the brain imaging test, your provider will most likely recommend a biopsy or resection (tumor removal) to determine the diagnosis.
Surgery can cure most grade 1 astrocytomas if your neurosurgeon can safely remove the entire tumor. Very rarely, surgery may also cure some grade 2 astrocytomas.
There’s no cure for grade 3 and grade 4 astrocytomas, as they grow and spread quickly. But radiation therapy and some medications can help slow their growth and help with symptoms.
Astrocytoma treatment depends on several factors, including:
Several specialists will work together to determine the best treatment plan for you. They may include:
The main forms of treatment for astrocytomas are:
There may also be clinical trials that you can participate in.
Surgery is the first step in the treatment of astrocytomas. It provides three significant benefits:
Since grade 1 astrocytomas grow slowly and don’t spread to other areas of your brain, surgery is usually all it takes to treat them.
Adjuvant therapy, sometimes called helper therapy, targets cancer cells that primary treatment didn’t destroy. In the case of astrocytomas, surgery is the primary treatment.
Grade 3 and grade 4 astrocytomas always require treatments other than surgery alone. Grade 2 astrocytomas may sometimes require adjuvant therapy.
Adjuvant therapies for astrocytomas include:
There’s nothing you can do to prevent developing astrocytoma. Most cases happen randomly.
If you have a genetic condition that puts you at higher risk for astrocytoma, be sure to see your healthcare team regularly so they can monitor you for signs of astrocytoma. The earlier they can catch it, the better.
The prognosis (outlook) of astrocytoma depends on several factors, including:
Your healthcare team will be able to give you more accurate information about what you can expect. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions.
The average survival rate varies depending on the grade of astrocytoma:
It’s important to remember that these are just averages based on large groups of people who’ve had astrocytoma. Your healthcare team can provide more detailed information about survival rates based on your unique situation.
You may need follow-up appointments with neurologists, oncologists and neurosurgeons to make sure your treatment has worked or is continuing to work.
Contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you develop new or worsening symptoms, such as:
It may be helpful to ask your healthcare team the following questions:
Glioblastoma is a type of astrocytoma — a grade 4 astrocytoma, specifically. Glioblastoma is an aggressive cancerous tumor that grows and spreads quickly. It’s the most common cancerous primary brain tumor.
There are several types of astrocytoma tumors — some are benign and some are malignant. Grade 1 astrocytomas are benign (noncancerous). Grades 2 through 4 are malignant (cancerous).
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Learning you have a tumor in your brain can be scary and stressful. Astrocytomas can vary in severity depending on the grade — some are benign and some are cancerous. Know that your healthcare team will develop an individualized and thorough treatment plan to help treat the astrocytoma and improve your quality of life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/31/2023.
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