An astrocytoma is a type of brain tumor that develops in astrocytes, the star-shaped cells in the brain that hold nerve cells in place. An astrocytoma can be harmless (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Astrocytomas are most common in middle-aged men, but they can occur in children, too.
Astrocytomas in children
In young patients, astrocytomas are usually found at the base of the brain, and they are usually low grade, which means they are slow growing. When diagnosed, a low-grade astrocytoma may not require immediate treatment. But it should be watched carefully, because it could turn into an aggressive, faster-growing tumor.
Whether benign or malignant, an astrocytoma can cause physical symptoms if it begins to grow in or press on an area of the brain. These are common symptoms of an astrocytoma:
Morning headache or a headache that goes away after vomiting
Vision, hearing, or speech problems
Loss of balance or trouble walking
Unusual changes in energy level or excessive sleepiness
Slow speech or worsening of handwriting skills
Doctors can use a variety of tests to determine the presence of an astrocytoma. CT scans and MRIs can provide an image of the brain and allow doctors to check for abnormalities. Sometimes a procedure called magnetic resonance spectroscopy will be done in conjunction with an MRI to determine the chemical makeup of the tumor.
If your child's health care provider suspects an astrocytoma, he or she may recommend a brain tissue biopsy to determine whether the tumor is cancerous. This is done as a surgical procedure.
If cancer cells are found, the surgeon may remove the tumor during the same surgery. The goal is usually to eliminate as much of the tumor as possible without damaging the brain. If some of the astrocytoma must remain in the brain, radiation therapy may be used to control its size. This can be done in the form of external beam radiation, which is administered on the outside of the body, or through radiosurgery, which focuses the radiation directly on the tumor site.
Another option to treat an astrocytoma is chemotherapy – giving special medications that kill tumor cells. Chemotherapy is often a better treatment for an astrocytoma than radiation therapy because it minimizes the risk for damage to a child's developing brain.
The outlook for people with an astrocytoma depends on the aggressiveness of the tumor, its location, and whether it has spread. The age of the child may also play a role. Overall, more than 70 percent of children with central nervous-system tumors will survive for five years or longer after diagnosis.