An astrocytoma is a type of brain tumor that develops in the astrocytes. These are 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
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In young people, astrocytomas are usually found at the base of the brain. 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. Often, a biopsy or surgery is needed to confirm the pathology and staging.
An astrocytoma can cause physical symptoms if it begins to grow in or press on an area of the brain. The most common symptoms of an astrocytoma are:
Loss of balance or trouble walking
Morning headache or a headache that goes away after vomiting
Slow speech or worsening of handwriting skills
Unusual changes in energy level or excessive sleepiness
Vision, hearing, or speech problems
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 along with an MRI to determine the chemical makeup of the tumor.
If your child’s healthcare provider suspects an astrocytoma, a brain tissue biopsy may be recommended 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 take out 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 given on the outside of the body. It can also be done with radiosurgery, which focuses the radiation directly on the tumor site.
Another option to treat an astrocytoma is chemotherapy. This is when you take special medicines 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% of children with central nervous-system tumors will survive for 5 years or longer after diagnosis.