Risks for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes childhood brain and spinal cord tumours develop in children who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

Most childhood brain and spinal cord tumours develop during the first 10 years of life. Boys are more likely than girls to develop certain types of brain tumours, such as ependymoma or medulloblastoma.

Some children with certain genetic conditions have a higher than average risk for brain and spinal cord tumours. Talk to your doctor about your child’s risk.

The following are risk factors for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. Most of the risk factors are not modifiable. This means that you can’t change them. Until we learn more about these risk factors, there are no specific ways you can reduce a child’s risk.

Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.

Risk factors

Certain genetic conditions

Previous radiation therapy

There is convincing evidence that the following factors increase the risk for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours.

Certain genetic conditions

Children with certain genetic conditions have a higher risk of developing brain and spinal cord tumours.

Neurofibromatosis affects the nerves, muscles, bones and skin. Both neurofibromatosis type 1 (von Recklinghausen disease, or NF1) and neurofibromatosis type 2 (acoustic neuroma, or NF2) increase the risk for childhood brain and spinal cord cancer. But these cancers occur more often in children with NF1. Some research shows that brain and spinal tumours caused by NF2 tend to be slow growing and non-cancerous.

Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) syndrome is a rare condition where people develop tumours and cysts in many different parts of the body. Tumours may be non-cancerous or cancerous.

Li-Fraumeni syndrome is a rare condition that increases the risk of developing different types of cancer, including brain tumours.

Tuberous sclerosis is also called Bourneville’s disease. It causes non-cancerous tumours to develop in the brain and spinal cord, skin, heart or kidneys.

Turcot syndrome causes many growths, called polyps, to form in the colon. It also causes tumours of the brain and spinal cord.

Basal cell nevus syndrome is also called Gorlin syndrome or nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome. It causes problems with several organs and increases the risk of developing different types of tumours, including brain and spinal cord tumours.

Cowden syndrome causes many non-cancerous growths, called hamartomas, to develop in different parts of the body, but most commonly in the skin and mucous membranes. Cowden syndrome increases the risk of developing certain cancers, including brain tumours.

Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome (RSTS) is also called broad thumb-hallux syndrome. People with this syndrome have unique facial features, wide and crooked thumbs and big toes, short stature and intellectual disability. RSTS increases the risk of developing different types of tumours, including brain tumours.

Previous radiation therapy

Ionizing radiation is a known risk factor for cancer. Children who had radiation therapy to the head to treat cancer or another health condition have a higher risk of developing brain tumours. Radiation therapy is only given to the head after carefully weighing the possible benefits and risks. For children with cancer in or near the brain, the benefits of radiation therapy to treat the cancer far outweigh the risk of developing a brain tumour years later.

Some imaging tests, such as CT scans, use ionizing radiation to make images. Modern imaging equipment uses the lowest amount of radiation possible, but a CT scan uses higher amounts of radiation than a regular x-ray. The risk of cancer from a single CT scan is small. The risk of cancer from imaging tests must be weighed against their benefits.

Possible risk factors

Having a birth defect is a possible risk factor for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. This means that it has been linked with childhood brain and spinal cord tumours, but there is not enough evidence to show for sure that it is a risk factor.

Questions to ask your healthcare team

Ask your child’s healthcare team questions about risks.

Expert review and references

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