Brain and central nervous system (CNS) tumours (tumours that affect the spinal cord) are the most common solid tumour of childhood. They account for a quarter of all cancers in children with around 400 children diagnosed with the condition each year in the UK.
Brain tumours are often picked up later than other childhood cancers due to their varied and often initially very subtle symptoms.
Children with brain tumours can develop a range of symptoms that start subtly and increase over time. These symptoms may include:
- Persistent or recurrent vomiting, especially in the morning
- New problems with coodination, loss of balance or feeling unsteady
- Behaviour or personality change
- Frequent or persistent headaches
- Unusual eye movements or a new squint
- Blurred vision
- Double vision (diplopia)
- New onset of fits (seizures)
For more information and resources on the signs and symptoms of brain tumours and how they may present, please see HeadSmart, know the symptoms.
Card reproduced from HeadSmart.
This is the most common brain tumour type in children, accounting for 40% of brain tumours. Around 3/4 of astrocytomas are low grade and have a 5 year survival of 95%. Unfortunately, the other 1/4 of astrocytomas are high grade tumours (more aggressive) and have a poorer prognosis.
These include medulloblastoma and PNET (primitive neuroectodermal tumours). They are most common in the very young children, accounting for 70 cases a year in the UK.
Ependymoma makes up about 10% of childhood CNS tumours, with a 5 year survival of 71%. It is a condition where malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.
Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG)
This is rare but unfortunately children with this diagnosis have very poor survival rates with almost all children passing away within 9 months of diagnosis. Radiation can be used in a number of cases to help slow progression.
Treatment of brain tumours
The main treatment for most brain tumours is surgery with or without radiotherapy. Radiotherapy is avoided if at all possible in children under the age of 3 years due to the damage it can cause to the developing brain. Proton beam radiotherapy is used in some cases because it is able to pinpoint and target a smaller area. Currently it is only available in Manchester in the UK (later in 2021, it will also be available at UCLH in London). Some families however may still need to go abroad to access proton beam radiotherapy for their child, usually in Essen, Germany or in the US. Chemotherapy is used routinely in medulloblastoma and is increasingly being used to treat other brain tumour types.
If you are reading this page, the likelihood is that you are worried your child or a child close to you may have cancer. Alternatively, they may have recently been diagnosed. If you have any concerns or queries, please discuss them with a member of your child's health care team. If you are unsure, it is always better to have your child reviewed.
Content reviewed August 2021