Oligodendroglioma is a central nervous system tumor, meaning it affects your brain (or rarely, your spinal cord). It starts in a type of glial cells, which are your nervous system’s support cells. Experts consider oligodendroglioma a very treatable tumor, even when cancerous, and the odds of survival are usually good.
Oligodendroglioma is a type of brain tumor, but in rare cases, it can form in your spinal cord. These tumors develop from a specific type of glial cell: oligodendrocytes. Glial cells are the support cells of your nervous system. They maintain and protect the neurons that send and relay signals within, to and from your brain.
Tumors that come from glial cells are called gliomas. Oligodendrogliomas account for between 5% and 15% of all gliomas, and about 3% to 4% of all brain tumors. Worldwide, healthcare providers diagnose just under 24,000 people with oligodendroglioma each year. Most people who have it are between the ages of 40 and 50.
The name “oligodendrocyte” comes from several Greek words and breaks down like so:
Every neuron has a main cell body with an arm-like extension called an axon. Many neurons have a myelin sheath around their axon. This fatty coating protects the axon and maintains signal speed as it passes through the neuron.
Oligodendrocytes have a main body and dozens of arm-like extensions that wrap around the axons of about 30 to 40 nearby neurons (which is why oligodendrocytes are “tree-like”). These extensions provide the myelin sheath for the axons of the connected neurons.
The World Health Organization (WHO) grading scale ranges from grade 1 (lowest) to grade 4 (highest). Oligodendrogliomas fall into two main types under this grading scale:
Like many brain cancers, oligodendrogliomas often don’t cause symptoms until they disturb brain tissue around them. The most common symptoms are headaches or seizures. Up to 80% of people with oligodendroglioma will have a seizure because of this cancer. That’s because oligodendrogliomas commonly affect your cerebral cortex, the wrinkly outer surface of your brain. The cortex is home to brain areas that control many of the abilities you use in everyday life, like vision, language, muscle control and more.
Besides seizures, oligodendrogliomas may cause focal symptoms. These symptoms indicate a problem that’s focused (hence the name “focal”) in a specific area of your brain. They usually affect a body part or an ability. Examples of focal symptoms can include:
By definition, all oligodendrogliomas happen because of two specific DNA changes:
The above genetic changes are all “de novo,” which means “new.” That means these mutations and deletions happen spontaneously. You don’t inherit them from either of your biological parents.
Researchers haven’t confirmed any risk factors for oligodendroglioma. But there’s research that could mean past radiation therapy (like the type used to treat other cancers) is a possible factor for developing similar tumors called gliomas. More research is necessary to confirm if that could be a cause or contributing factor.
Oligodendrogliomas affect your brain, so they can cause many possible complications. The complications you could experience depend on many factors, especially the location of the oligodendroglioma, other health conditions you have and more.
Some complications to be aware of include:
A healthcare provider will diagnose oligodendroglioma using multiple methods, including:
Diagnostic imaging is especially important with oligodendrogliomas because it lets providers “see” inside your head. The scans that are most likely to help are:
But imaging scans alone aren’t enough to diagnose an oligodendroglioma. They only provide evidence that you have a tumor in your brain that might be an oligodendroglioma. That evidence is what providers use to determine if you need a brain biopsy and pathology testing.
A brain biopsy is a surgical procedure where a neurosurgeon will collect a tiny tumor sample. The tumor sample then goes to a lab for analysis. The analysis will look at the cells under a microscope for visible changes. The sample will also undergo genetic/molecular testing to determine if you have a 1p/19q chromosome co-deletion and an IDH mutation. If testing finds both, a healthcare provider can diagnose the tumor as an oligodendroglioma.
Depending on your symptoms, medical history and any other health concerns, there are other tests you might need to undergo. Your healthcare provider can recommend these tests and explain why they may help.
Oligodendrogliomas are among the more treatable brain tumors and cancers. The treatment often involves multiple methods, including:
Brain surgery aims to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Sometimes, a neurosurgeon can remove the whole tumor. The success rate of surgery depends strongly on the type of oligodendroglioma, how much it’s progressed, the tumor’s location, your surgeon’s expertise and other factors.
Depending on surgery outcomes, the amount of tumor your surgeon is able to remove, the tumor grade, your age and your general health, you may or may not need radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. Your care team will explain all the options for you based on the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines.
Certain chemotherapy drugs are very effective against oligodendroglioma. The most likely chemotherapy treatments are:
Radiation therapy is very common with oligodendroglioma. This approach bombards tumor cells with enough energy to destroy them. The radiation is targeted as precisely as possible. The goal is to destroy as much of a tumor as possible while leaving surrounding healthy tissue unharmed.
The side effects or complications of oligodendroglioma treatments depend strongly on the treatments themselves and other factors. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about the side effects or complications that are most likely in your case and what you can do about them.
Experts don’t know why oligodendrogliomas happen or what makes them more likely to occur. Because of that, there’s no way to prevent it or reduce your risk of having it.
Oligodendroglioma is a type of brain tumor, so it’s a serious concern. But it’s more treatable and less dangerous than other types of gliomas.
Most people won’t know they have oligodendroglioma until they have symptoms, especially seizures or headaches. A first-time seizure is always something that needs emergency medical care. Headaches need medical attention when they’re frequent, happen with certain activities or occur in a way that disrupts your life.
Having symptoms is usually what leads to an imaging test that first detects an oligodendroglioma. Once detected, a healthcare provider will recommend testing to diagnose what you have and determine how to treat it. Treating oligodendroglioma is important because even low-grade, benign tumors can eventually turn into cancer. Limiting the spread of oligodendroglioma is a key way to prevent further complications or spreading to other parts of your body.
An oligodendroglioma is serious, but the outlook tends to be positive. The five-year survival rates (the percentage of people who are alive five years after diagnosis) for low-grade oligodendrogliomas range from 69% to 90%. Younger adults have a higher five-year survival rate. The five-year survival rates for high-grade oligodendroglioma are 45% to 76%.
There’s also a new drug that researchers are working on that shows promise for oligodendrogliomas with IDH mutations. This drug is still in development, but the early data indicates that it could increase the odds of a better outcome.
If you have oligodendroglioma, your healthcare provider will help you decide which treatment approach is best for you. They’ll also recommend a treatment schedule and regular follow-up visits.
Going to your treatments and follow-up visits is very important. Receiving treatment consistently and as recommended is also vital.
Side effects are common with many of the treatments for oligodendroglioma. Your healthcare provider can help you understand the possible side effects that are most likely to affect you and what you can do about them.
You may want to ask your healthcare provider any of the following:
Oligodendrogliomas are treatable, but not technically “curable,” tumors. The most likely approach to treating oligodendroglioma is to remove the whole tumor (or as much of it as possible) and then your care team determines if chemotherapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these are necessary to eradicate any remaining cancer cells.
Like all tumors or cancers, oligodendroglioma can be fatal. But oligodendroglioma generally has higher survival rates than other gliomas and brain cancers. The chances of prolonged survival are higher with lower-grade tumors. Other factors can also play a role, so your healthcare provider can tell you more about the outlook for your specific case.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Hearing that you have any kind of tumor can be a life-changing moment. You might experience fear, shock or anger. But having oligodendroglioma doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. In fact, oligodendroglioma has higher survival rates than most brain tumors, especially when it’s a lower-grade tumor.
Oligodendroglioma generally responds well to multiple forms of treatment, and most people with it will survive for many years. Better still, advances in treatment options offer the chance for higher survival odds and quality of life for people with oligodendroglioma.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/17/2023.
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