Research provides hope for a cure
A brain tumor is an abnormal growth of cells in the brain. These cells come from the supporting structure of the brain. There are several types of supporting cells. The type and name of your child’s tumor is based on the type of supporting cell that begins to grow abnormally. Some people may not want to call a brain tumor a cancer because it usually does not spread beyond the brain. However, a brain tumor is made of abnormally growing cells that can cause damage. In that sense it is a cancer.
- The central nervous system, or CNS, is made up of the brain and the spinal cord.
- Brain tumors are the most commonly occurring solid tumor in children. With 1,700 cases diagnosed each year in the United States, they are almost as common as childhood leukemia.
- Researchers are still trying to find out what causes brain tumors, although some tumors are associated with genetic diseases such as neurofibromatosis and tuberous sclerosis.
Tumors can be “benign” or “malignant”
Usually, we think of “benign” as meaning mild or harmless, and “malignant” as serious and potentially threatening, possibly causing death. A tumor is referred to as malignant when it spreads beyond the original site to other areas or organs. Tumors that begin in the brain usually don’t spread to other organs, but they can sometimes spread in the central nervous system. Even though brain tumors may not spread to other organs, they can cause problems by growing within the head, putting pressure on the normal brain tissue, or destroying healthy tissue. This means that some brain tumors, made up of very slow growing cells that do not spread to other locations and can be treated with surgery alone, may be considered benign, while other tumors might be malignant even though they remain in the same place.
Brain tumors may have a variety of symptoms, but none of them is specific. These include:
- visual symptoms, like the crossing of the eyes or sudden development of a “lazy eye”
- gradual loss of movement in an arm or leg
- poor balance
- an eating disorder
- hearing loss
- speech difficulty
If the doctor suspects your child’s symptoms are caused by a brain tumor, there are several procedures that may follow:
- CT Scan (computed tomographic scan): Similar to an x-ray, this machine produces a three-dimensional image of the brain.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): This uses magnetic fields and radio waves to make a detailed picture of the brain.
- Surgery: Often, surgery is required to determine whether a brain tumor exists and what type of tumor it is. A small sample of tumor tissue may be surgically removed and examined under a microscope. The diagnosis may be made during the surgical procedure by making a fast frozen tissue section which takes about 20-30 minutes. Sometimes a biopsy is done by making a small hole in the skull and using a needle to extract a sample of the tumor.
Leading the way to a cure
The University of Minnesota Brain Tumor Program has no shortage of goals. In the next five years, its leaders hope to recruit additional faculty and scientists, establish a pediatric neuro-oncology fellowship program, initiate the first brain tumor vaccine trial, develop a bone marrow transplant trial for patients whose brain tumor has relapsed, and establish a Brain Tumor Comprehensive Care Clinic. Learn more about how our researchers are leading the way to a cure.