Childhood brain and spinal tumours

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Signs and symptoms of childhood brain and spinal cord cancer

A sign is something that can be observed and recognized by a doctor or healthcare professional (for example, a rash). A symptom is something that only the child experiencing it can feel and know (for example, pain or tiredness). The signs and symptoms of childhood brain and spinal cord cancer can also be caused by other health conditions. It is important to have any unusual symptoms checked by a doctor.

Signs and symptoms of childhood brain and spinal cord cancer are usually the result of increased intracranial pressure (ICP). Increased ICP can occur when the tumour grows larger and starts to affect brain function. It can also happen when the tumour blocks the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and causes a buildup of CSF in the brain (hydrocephalus).

Signs and symptoms of childhood brain and spinal cord cancer include:

  • seizures
  • headache – often described as a morning headache but may occur at any time and may even wake a child up at night; sometimes goes away after the child vomits
  • nausea
  • vomiting – often occurs in the morning, but could occur at any time of the day
  • lethargy
  • double vision
  • blurred vision
  • drowsiness
  • irritability

In a young baby, increased ICP and hydrocephalus may also cause an increase in the rate of head growth, an increase in head size and a bulge in the soft spot (fontanelle) on the top of the baby's head.

Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • ataxia
  • dizziness
  • nystagmus – an involuntary rapid rhythmic movement of the eyes
  • staring or repetitive automatic movements (a neck tilt or squint)
  • tilting of the head to one side
  • early or delayed puberty
  • delayed or abnormal growth
  • endocrine abnormalities, such as diabetes or thyroid dysfunction
  • sleep apnea – the child stops breathing periodically while asleep
  • pain – especially back or neck pain
  • changes in personality or behaviour
  • unsteady gait or worsening balance – difficulty with coordination or balance
  • weakness on one side of the face or body
  • difficulty with speech or swallowing
  • changes in eating or thirst – loss of appetite or failure to thrive in infants
  • decline in school performance – drop in intellectual and motor abilities
  • changes in, or loss of, bowel or bladder control
  • hearing loss without evidence of infection

Symptoms may depend on the location of the tumour in the brain:

  • Tumours in parts of the brain that control movement or sensation may cause weakness or numbness.
  • Tumours in the cerebellum (which controls coordination and balance) may cause stumbling and uncoordinated movements.
  • Tumours in and around the pituitary gland or optic nerve can cause vision problems.
  • Tumours in or around other cranial nerves may cause problems in areas that those nerves control.
    • For example, tumours in or around the acoustic nerve may affect hearing and balance.
  • Tumours in the spinal cord can cause back pain, numbness or weakness in the legs, and changes in bowel or bladder habits.


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