Childhood brain and spinal tumours

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What is a childhood brain or spinal cord tumour?

A brain tumour starts in the cells of the brain. A spinal cord tumour starts in the cells of the spinal cord. The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system (CNS). The brain is the control centre of your body. It is a soft mass of nerve tissue protected by a bony covering called the skull. The spinal cord runs through the spine. It contains nerves that send information between the brain and the rest of the body.

Diagram of the central nervous system

Cells in the brain or spinal cord sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous (benign) conditions such as brain or spinal cord cysts. Cells in the brain and spinal cord can also change and form tumours.

There are many types of childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. Tumours can be non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant). A cancerous tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. Although brain tumours rarely spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body, most brain tumours can spread through the brain and spinal cord tissue. Even non-cancerous brain tumours can grow and press on and destroy normal brain tissue. Doctors often talk about a brain tumour rather than a brain cancer. The most important thing about brain and spinal cord tumours is how fast they can grow and spread through the rest of the brain or spinal cord. In general, a cancerous brain tumour grows quicker and spreads faster than a non-cancerous brain tumour. Both non-cancerous and cancerous brain tumours can cause signs and symptoms and need treatment.

Describing childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Brain and spinal cord tumours are classified based on their grade. The grade of a tumour tells you how quickly it is growing and how likely it is to spread.

  • Low-grade (benign) tumours grow slowly. They don’t usually grow into surrounding tissues or spread to other areas of the brain or spinal cord. Some low-grade tumours may develop into high-grade tumours.
  • High-grade (malignant) tumours grow quickly. They can grow into nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the brain or spine. Malignant tumours that start in the brain and spinal cord rarely spread outside the CNS.

Types of childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Brain and spinal cord tumours are named or classified by the type of cell or tissue they start in.

In children, brain tumours often start in glial cells. Glial cells cover and support the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain and spinal cord. A tumour that starts in glial cells is called a glioma. There are many different types of gliomas, including astrocytoma, ependymoma and brain stem glioma.

Brain tumours can also start in other cells or tissues of the brain.

Tumours that develop in the brain can also occur in the spinal cord. The most common types of tumours that can develop in the spinal cord include astrocytoma, ependymoma and ganglioglioma.

Some types of brain and spinal cord tumours are more common in children, and others are more common in adults. Find out more about brain and spinal cord tumours in adults.

Brain metastasis

When a tumour starts in brain cells, it is called a primary brain tumour. Other types of cancer can spread to the brain, but this is not the same disease as a primary brain tumour. Cancer that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the brain is called brain metastasis. It is not treated in the same way as primary brain tumour. Find out more about brain metastases.

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