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Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Patient Information [NCI] - General Information About Childhood Astrocytomas

Childhood astrocytoma is a disease in which benign (noncancer) or malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the brain.

Astrocytomas are tumors that start in star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes. An astrocyte is a type of glial cell. Glial cells hold nerve cells in place and help them work the way they should. There are several types of astrocytomas. They can form anywhere in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Brain tumors are the third most common type of cancer in children.

The tumors may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Benign brain tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain. They rarely spread into other tissues. Malignant brain tumors are likely to grow quickly and spread into other brain tissue. When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from working the way it should. Both benign and malignant brain tumors can cause symptoms and need treatment.

This summary is about the treatment of primary brain tumors that begin in the glial cells in the brain. Information is included about the following tumors that form from glial cells:

  • Astrocytomas.
  • Oligodendrogliomas.
  • Oligoastrocytomas.
  • Glioblastoma.

Treatment of metastatic brain tumors is not discussed in this summary. Metastatic brain tumors are formed by cancer cells that begin in other parts of the body and spread to the brain.

Brain tumors can occur in both children and adults. However, treatment for children may be different than treatment for adults. (For more information about the different types of brain tumors, see the PDQ Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview summary about children and the Adult Brain Tumors summary about adults.)

The central nervous system controls many important body functions.

Astrocytomas most commonly form in these parts of the central nervous system (CNS):

  • Cerebrum: The largest part of the brain, at the top of the head. The cerebrum controls thinking, learning, problem-solving, speech, emotions, reading, writing, and voluntary movement.
  • Cerebellum: The lower, back part of the brain (near the middle of the back of the head). The cerebellum controls movement, balance, and posture.
  • Brain stem: The part that connects the brain to the spinal cord, in the lowest part of the brain (just above the back of the neck). The brain stem controls breathing, heart rate, and the nerves and muscles used in seeing, hearing, walking, talking, and eating.
  • Hypothalamus: The area in the middle of the base of the brain that controls body temperature, hunger, and thirst.
  • Visual pathway: The group of nerves that connect the eye with the brain.
  • Spinal cord: The column of nerve tissue that runs from the brain stem down the center of the back. It is covered by three thin layers of tissue called membranes. The spinal cord and membranes are surrounded by the vertebrae (back bones). Spinal cord nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body, such as a signal from the brain to cause muscles to move or from the skin to the brain for the sense of touch.
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