Astrocytoma is a type of brain cancer that usually starts in the cerebrum, the largest part of your brain, but can also show up in the cerebellum (the back of the brain). It’s more common in men than women and most often shows up after age 45. There are several types of astrocytoma, and some grow faster than others.
They get their name from astrocytes, the star-shaped cells where they form in the brain. About 50% of primary brain tumors are astrocytomas.
When doctors announced that Sen. Edward Kennedy had a kind of brain cancer called malignant glioma, many people hearing the news had probably never heard of the cancer.
For some, however, the diagnosis was painfully familiar. WebMD talked to three survivors of brain cancer similar to that affecting the senator, including two who have survived it for more than 10 years. Their advice to Kennedy: Don't listen to statistics, and don't give up hope.
Here are their stories:
Like other tumors, astrocytomas are graded on a scale of 1 to 4, based on how abnormal the cells look and how fast they grow. Most astrocytomas in adults are high grade. This means the cells look abnormal and grow quickly.
There are several kinds of astrocytoma:
Anaplastic astrocytomas are rare. They are grade 3 cancers that grow quickly and spread to nearby tissue. They are hard to remove completely because of their tentacle-like fingers, which grow into nearby brain tissue.
Glioblastomas are also called grade 4 astrocytomas. About 60% to 75% of astrocytomas are glioblastomas. They grow very quickly and are hard to treat because they are often a mix of different cancer cell types.
Diffuse astrocytomas can grow into nearby tissue, but they grow slowly. Also called low-grade or astrocytoma grade 2, they can come back as higher-grade tumors.
Pineal astrocytic tumors can be any grade. They form around the pineal gland. This tiny organ in the cerebrum makes melatonin, which helps control sleep and waking.
Brain stem gliomas are rare in adults. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes gliomas can form in the brain stem, the part that connects to the spinal cord.
You and your doctor will make a treatment plan based on the type of astrocytoma you have, where it is, how fast it's growing, and your symptoms.
Surgery to remove all of a tumor -- or as much as possible -- is a likely first step. The exception is gliomas in the brain stem, an area where surgery can be too risky. Surgery may be enough to cure grade 1 tumors. Surgery usually doesn’t remove all of a higher-grade tumor.
Radiationoften follows in case parts of a tumor could not be removed or surgeons can’t be sure they got all of the cancer.