Treatments for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Your child’s treatment will be overseen by a pediatric neurosurgeon. They will work along with other specialists such as a pediatric neurologist, radiation oncologist, pediatric neuro-oncologist, endocrinologist and neuro-oncologist. Find out more about your child’s healthcare team.

If your child has a brain or spinal cord tumour, the healthcare team will create a treatment plan just for your child. It will be based on your child’s health and specific information about the cancer. When deciding which treatments to offer for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours, the healthcare team will consider:

  • the type, size and location of the tumour
  • how far the tumour has grown or spread
  • whether the tumour can be surgically removed
  • the grade of the tumour
  • your child’s age, neurological condition and general health

Surgery is often used to treat childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. The goal of surgery is to completely remove the tumour or remove as much of the tumour as possible.

Radiation therapy is commonly used to treat childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. In children under 3 years old, radiation can damage developing brain cells, and doctors will try to postpone radiation therapy until the child is older.

Chemotherapy may also be used to treat childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. Chemotherapy uses anticancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells.

Corticosteroids and antiseizure medicines (anticonvulsants) are often used to treat symptoms caused by childhood brain and spinal cord tumours and their treatment, such as swelling of the brain or spinal cord and seizures.

Stem cell transplant is sometimes used to treat certain childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. A stem cell transplant uses high-dose chemotherapy to destroy bone marrow cells. After high-dose chemotherapy, healthy stem cells are given to replace the ones in the bone marrow that were destroyed.

Active surveillance may be a treatment option for some types of low-grade brain or spinal cord tumours. Active surveillance means that the healthcare team watches the tumour closely. Treatment is given if there are any signs that the tumour is growing or there is an increased risk that the tumour will progress.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children. 2016.
  • Macmillan Cancer Support. Brain tumours in children. Macmillan Cancer Support; 2015.
  • National Cancer Institute. Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview (PDQ). 2015.
  • National Cancer Institute. Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview - for health professionals (PDQ). 2015.
  • Brain tumours. National Childhood Cancer Foundation & Children's Oncology Group. CureSearch. Bethesda, MD: 2006.
  • The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). AboutKidsHealth: Treatment of Brain Tumours. Toronto, ON: 2009: http://www.aboutkidshealth.ca/En/ResourceCentres/BrainTumours/TreatmentofBrainTumours/Pages/default.aspx.

Surgery for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Surgery is the primary treatment for childhood brain and spinal cord cancer. Surgery is used to remove a sample of the tumour (biopsy), to find out the type of tumour and plan treatment, and to remove as much of the tumour as possible (resection) while sparing neurologic function.

Radiation therapy for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy plays a large role in the treatment of many childhood brain and spinal cord tumours.

Chemotherapy for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Chemotherapy is commonly used to treat childhood brain and spinal cord cancer.

Corticosteroids and antiseizure medicines (anticonvulsants)

Corticosteroids and antiseizure medicines (anticonvulsants) are commonly used to treat the symptoms caused by brain and spinal cord tumours and their treatment. They may be used after surgery or during radiation therapy to relieve symptoms.

Stem cell transplant for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

A stem cell transplant is sometimes used to treat childhood brain and spinal cord tumours. Stem cells are found in the bone marrow, the blood and the umbilical cord. They are basic cells that develop into different types of cells that have different jobs. For example, all our blood cells develop from blood stem cells.

Active surveillance for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Active surveillance or observation may be a treatment option for some types of low-grade brain or spinal cord tumours. Active surveillance means the healthcare team watches the tumour closely. Treatment is given if there are any signs that the tumour is growing or there is an increased risk that the tumour will progress.

Follow-up after treatment for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

Childhood brain and spinal cord cancer behaves differently in each child and the many different types of brain tumours react differently to treatment. Therefore, a standard follow-up schedule would not work for all children. Parents of children with brain and spinal cord cancer should talk to their child's doctor about a follow-up plan that suits their individual situation. Follow-up care is often shared among the cancer specialists and your family doctor.

Late effects of treatments for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

The child's healthcare team will watch for late side effects and can help to prepare you for what to expect. They can also suggest ways to help your child.