Brain tumors in children can be malignant (cancer) or benign (not cancer). There are several types, depending on where in their brain the tumor started. A pediatric brain tumor can cause symptoms when it presses on an area of their brain. Although some tumors can be life-threatening, advances in diagnosis and treatment have improved survival for many.
A pediatric brain tumor is a growth of abnormal brain cells in a child. A brain cell becomes abnormal when it undergoes genetic changes. The change in a specific gene of brain cells can cause the cell to form a tumor.
There are many types of pediatric brain tumors, and they can occur at any age — from birth to adolescence and sometimes even in adulthood. Brain tumors (neoplasms) may be malignant (cancerous) or non-malignant (or benign, not cancerous).
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Pediatric brain tumors are the most common type of cancer in children, affecting over 5,000 kids each year.
There are many types of pediatric brain tumors. They’re grouped by the kind of brain cell in which they develop. The main categories include:
Gliomas originate from glial cells in your brain. Glial cells support, nourish and protect your brain tissue and nerve cells or neurons. About half of all pediatric brain tumors are gliomas. Gliomas can be low-grade (slow growing) or high-grade (aggressive and fast growing).
Specific types include:
Embryonal tumors start in fetal or embryonic cells in your central nervous system. These are cancerous tumors that can occur at any age, but they’re most common in babies and young children.
Specific types of embryonal tumors include:
A pineal tumor develops in your pineal gland. Your pineal gland is in the middle of your brain and secretes a hormone called melatonin. There are different kinds of tumors that originate in your pineal gland. The tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Specific types of tumors that occur in the pineal gland in children include:
Craniopharyngiomas are noncancerous tumors that start, near your pituitary gland. They arise from the embryonic tissue of your pituitary gland. Craniopharyngiomas are solid, cystic (sac of fluid) or mixed. They can be slow growing or fast growing.
These tumors can press on your pituitary gland, which makes hormones that regulate growth, blood pressure and reproduction. They also press on your hypothalamus, an important area of your brain that controls many functions, including body temperature, bodily fluids, emotions and much more. Craniopharyngiomas can also put pressure on your optic nerves, which can affect vision.
Germ cell tumors are cancerous tumors that begin from embryonic cells called “germ” cells. During development, germ cells migrate outside of your brain to form ovaries or testes. The germ cells that remain in your brain can become cancerous to form germ cell tumors. These tumors can spread into your spine and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
Choroid plexus tumors start in your choroid plexus, which lines the ventricles (fluid-filled cavities) of your brain. These tumors can be noncancerous (like choroid plexus papilloma) or cancerous (like choroid plexus carcinoma). Atypical choroid plexus papillomas are intermediate-grade tumors that can become malignant if not removed.
Schwannomas are tumors that start in the Schwann cells, which insulate nerves in your brain. This type of tumor usually grows near the nerve that manages hearing and balance. It may also form near your spinal cord, causing weakness and problems with your senses. Although schwannomas are usually benign (not cancerous), they can be malignant (cancerous).
Meningiomas are another type of brain tumor, but they’re less common in children. Meningiomas begin in your meninges, a layer of tissue around your brain. They can press on your brain and spinal cord. The majority of meningiomas are benign, but they can grow large enough to be life-threatening.
A neoplasm forms when healthy cells multiply and grow out of control. Scientists don’t understand what causes cells to grow uncontrollably, but it may relate to:
There’s a link between some pediatric brain tumors and cancer syndromes (a collection of seemingly related health issues). Experts don’t fully understand this link yet.
Associated cancer syndromes include:
Signs and symptoms of a brain tumor vary widely depending on the type of neoplasm, severity, rate of growth and location. They may include:
If a healthcare provider suspects a brain tumor, your child will have several exams and tests, which may include:
If the tests discover abnormal cells, the healthcare team will determine whether the neoplasm is noncancerous or malignant. They also may give the brain tumor a grade to help define how serious it is and how likely it is to grow:
If a brain tumor is cancerous or causes troubling symptoms, your child may need treatment. Treatment depends on the type of tumor, where it is and how quickly it might spread. Options may include:
Because scientists don’t fully understand what causes brain tumors, there aren’t any proven ways to prevent them.
The outlook for children with brain tumors varies widely, depending on:
A large, aggressive tumor can be life-threatening, but advances in diagnosis and treatment have helped more and more children survive.
A pediatric brain tumor can come back (recur) during childhood or adulthood.
Recurrence means that a new and different neoplasm may develop. Or the same tumor can grow again if any abnormal cells remained after treatment.
Consider asking your child’s healthcare team the following questions:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Learning that your child has a brain tumor can be scary. You may wonder where to turn for support and answers. There are many resources available, including local and online support groups. Talking with other families who are going through the same thing can be beneficial during this trying time. Although some tumor types can be life-threatening, advances in diagnosis and treatment have helped many children survive.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/23/2023.
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