About children's brain tumours

A brain tumour is a collection of cells that have grown in an uncontrolled way. Tumours that start in the brain are called primary brain tumours.

This is different to cancers that have spread to the brain from somewhere else in the body. These are called:

  • secondary brain tumours
  • secondary brain cancer
  • brain metastases

Secondary brain tumours are rare in children. We have information on secondary brain tumours that you might find helpful. But this information is written for adults with cancer.

Cancerous or non cancerous brain tumours

Brain tumours can be cancerous (malignant) or non cancerous (benign).

The most common types of malignant brain tumours in children include:

  • medulloblastoma
  • ependymoma

The most common type of benign brain tumour in children is a low grade astrocytoma. You might also hear this called a low grade glioma.

Sometimes it is not possible to say exactly what type of brain tumour it is. This is usually because the tumour is in a part of the brain that is too difficult to take a sample (biopsy) from.

Although it’s less likely that benign brain tumours will spread to other areas in the body, they can still cause serious problems. This is usually because of where the tumour started in the brain.

How common is a brain tumour in childhood?

Brain tumours are relatively rare. And they are less common in children than adults.

Tumours affecting the brain and central nervous system are the second most common type of children’s cancer in the UK. Around 410 children are diagnosed with these tumours each year in the UK. They can occur in children of any age.

What causes a brain tumour in childhood?

We don’t know exactly what causes brain tumours in children. Certain genetic conditions can increase a child's risk of developing some types of tumours. But this is very rare. And not every child with these conditions develop a brain tumour.

It’s normal to wonder if there was something you could have done to prevent your child developing a brain tumour. There is no evidence to show that anything anyone does during pregnancy or early in a child’s life could cause a brain tumour.

Symptoms

Brain tumours cause symptoms because they:

  • take up space inside the skull when they grow
  • cause specific symptoms due to their position in the brain
  • block the normal flow of fluid moving through the brain or spinal cord – this can cause pressure known as hydrocephalus

Some symptoms of a brain tumour are very general and lots of other childhood conditions can cause them. It's unlikely to be a brain tumour, but always get your child’s symptoms checked out by a GP.

The HeadSmart campaign have guidance to help GPs work out which children need a referral for a possible tumour.

The brain

To understand tumours that affect the brain and the spinal cord, it helps to know about the:

  • parts of the brain and spinal cord
  • types of cells and tissues

Your brain controls your body by sending electrical messages along nerve fibres. The fibres run out of the brain and join together to make your spinal cord. Together your brain and spinal cord make your central nervous system (CNS).

    The main areas of the brain include:

    • the cerebrum (forebrain)
    • the brain stem
    • the cerebellum
    Diagram showing some of the main parts of the brain

    The cerebrum (forebrain)

    The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It's also called the forebrain. It's divided into two halves, the right and left central hemispheres.

    These hemispheres control:

    • movement
    • thinking
    • memory
    • emotions
    • senses
    • speech

    The nerves that come from the right side of your brain control the left side of your body. And the nerves that control the left side of your brain control the right side of your body.

    Each half (central hemisphere) is divided into 4 areas.

    Diagram showing the lobes of the brain

    Frontal lobe

    The frontal lobe is important for:

    • speaking
    • planning
    • problem solving
    • starting some movements
    • processing sensations
    • part of your personality and character

    Temporal lobe

    The temporal lobe is where you process sounds and where you store memories.

    Parietal lobe

    The parietal lobe recognises objects in the world and stores that knowledge. It's where you receive and process:

    • touch
    • pressure
    • pain

    Occipital lobe

    This lobe processes what you can see.

    The brain stem

    This controls body functions we don't usually think about like:

    • breathing
    • swallowing
    • heartbeat and blood pressure

    Making hormones

    Your brain makes hormones, which are important for your body to function.

    Pituitary gland hormones

    These affect:

    • growth
    • the speed of body processes (your metabolism)
    • periods and egg production
    • sperm production

    Pineal gland hormone

    The pineal gland makes melatonin, which controls your sleep patterns.

    Diagram showing the pineal and pituitary glands

    Fluid around the brain

    Fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

    Ventricles are spaces inside the brain filled with CSF. They connect with the space in the centre of the spinal cord and the brain covering (the meninges). This allows the fluid to circulate around and through the brain and spinal cord.

    Diagram showing where the ventricles are in the brain

    Where do brain tumours start?

    Brain tumours can start anywhere in the brain.

    They cause different symptoms depending on their position in the brain.

    For example:

    • weakness on the left side is linked to a tumour in the right side of the brain
    • a tumour in the parietal lobe can affect speech, reading or writing
    • a tumour in the occipital lobe can cause sight problems
    • a tumour in the cerebellum can affect balance and movement

    Children under 4 years old can’t usually describe symptoms such as:

    • a headache
    • feeling sick
    • double vision

    So, they might show different symptoms or behaviours than older children even if the tumour is in the same part of the brain.

    Treatment

    The main treatments for brain tumours in children are:

    • surgery
    • radiotherapy
    • chemotherapy
    Last reviewed: 
    13 Mar 2019
    • Incidence statistics from Cancer Research UK (Cancer Stats)
      Accessed October 2018

    • Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness (11th edition)
      Ross and Wilson
      Churchill Livingstone, 2010

    • Cancer and its Management (7th edition)
      J Tobias and D Hochhauser
      Wiley-Blackwell, 2014

    • Pediatric Neuro-Oncology
      K Scheinmann and E Bouffet (Editors)
      Springer, 2015

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