Late effects of treatments for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours

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Recovery from a childhood brain or spinal cord tumour and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each child. Recovery depends on the type and dose of treatment, the child’s age at the time of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects.

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

Hormone problems

Radiation therapy to areas around the pituitary gland and hypothalamus can reduce the amount of hormones that the pituitary gland releases. Your child will see an endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in hormones) to monitor them for any hormone problems.

Lowered amounts of growth hormone (GH) can slow growth and affect bones and height. This can result in short stature and bones that don’t reach full maturity. GH replacement therapy is often given after treatment is completed to help the child grow and develop normally.

Lowered amounts of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) can lead to thyroid problems such as hypothyroidism (reduced thyroid hormones), causing tiredness, dry skin, weight gain, constipation, slowed bone growth and thinning hair. Thyroid hormone replacement therapy may be given to help the thyroid function normally.

Lowered amounts of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) can lead to changes in testosterone or estrogen levels. This could cause reproductive system problems such as early puberty or failure to fully develop through puberty, impotence or irregular menstrual periods. Hormone replacement therapy may be given to maintain normal testosterone and estrogen levels.

Find out more about bone and muscle problems, thyroid problems and problems with male reproductive organs or female reproductive organs.

Learning problems

A brain tumour or treatments for it, such as surgery, radiation therapy, high-dose chemotherapy or intrathecal chemotherapy, can cause neurocognitive changes. These changes can include:

  • memory loss
  • shorter attention span
  • reading problems
  • reduced ability to understand what is read or heard
  • writing problems
  • spelling problems
  • speech problems
  • difficulty solving math problems
  • difficulty with spatial relations, such as order, size, distance, volume and time (for example, the child may mix up the order of letters in a word or words in a sentence, forget the arrangement of items in a locker or desk or have difficulty determining the space between people in a line and the arrangement of people in that line)

Neurocognitive changes can affect a child’s education and future financial and employment opportunities. Neuropsychologists (psychologists with specialized knowledge about childhood neurocognitive issues) can do an in-depth assessment of the child’s neurocognitive abilities and identify problem areas and challenges that the child may have. Together with the child’s teachers, neuropsychologists can create an individualized plan to ensure that the child has the help, support and resources needed to cope with these changes.

Find out more about cognitive problems and learning difficulties.

Hearing problems

Radiation therapy to the head and certain chemotherapy drugs, such as cisplatin and carboplatin, may cause hearing loss. In young children, this may lead to other concerns, such as delayed language development and impaired social development.

Hearing tests are usually done at the end of treatment and then once a year to monitor the child’s hearing. If necessary, the child may need a hearing aid or speech therapy.

Find out more about hearing problems and speech-language problems.

Bone and muscle problems

Surgery to treat a brain tumour may cause a change in the child’s muscle strength and physical coordination. Physical or occupational therapists are specialists in rehabilitation who will help the child regain as much coordination and strength as possible.

Children treated with radiation therapy to the brain are at risk for growth hormone (GH) deficiency. If the body doesn’t have enough GH, it can develop musculoskeletal problems. These problems mean the bones and muscles don’t grow as they should. They can lead to underdeveloped muscles, curvature of the spine, shorter limbs and shorter height. Some children may need artificial (synthetic) GH replacements if their growth is affected. Children treated with radiation therapy to the brain are also at risk for osteoporosis due to low levels of sex and growth hormones.

Radiation to the spine may slow the growth of the spinal cord and the bones in the spine. This could result in the child having a shortened body height, while their arms and legs grow to their normal length.

Younger children are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation. Therefore, doctors will try to avoid giving radiation to children younger than 3 years of age.

Find out more about bone and muscle problems.

Dental problems

Some chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy to the head or neck can cause oral and dental problems. These problems may include a higher risk for cavities and white or discoloured patches on the teeth. The treatments can also affect the roots of teeth so they are shorter or thinner, or sometimes teeth or roots don’t grow at all. Oral and dental problems can develop many years after treatment is finished.

Find out more about dental problems.

Swallowing problems

Brain tumours or their treatment may affect a child’s ability to swallow. Some children may only have a decreased gag reflex, but they can still swallow. Others may not be able to swallow at all and may have to get their nutrition through a feeding tube. Speech therapists and occupational therapists can help with rehabilitation to improve the child’s ability to swallow and take foods orally again.

Find out more about swallowing problems.

Eye problems

Tumours along the optic nerve or their treatment can affect a child’s vision in a number of ways. The child’s vision may be decreased, blurry or doubled. Cataracts may form if the eyes were in the direct path of radiation.

Occupational therapists may be able to help the child adjust to vision problems. It may help for a child who has double vision (diplopia) to wear a patch over one eye to reduce the discomfort and headaches that often come with seeing double. Eye surgeons may be able to remove cataracts caused by radiation and restore the child’s vision.

Find out more about eye problems.

Heart problems

Certain chemotherapy drugs, such as doxorubicin, may cause weakening of the heart muscles and other heart problems.

The healthcare team will carefully monitor children receiving chemotherapy for any signs of heart damage. They will do regular physical exams and tests, such as echocardiograms (an ultrasound of the heart), electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG) and blood pressure monitoring. These exams and tests help doctors find heart problems early and determine if treatment is necessary.

Find out more about heart problems.

Reproductive system problems

Radiation therapy to the brain can cause lowered amounts of certain hormones. Lowered amounts of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) can lead to changes in testosterone or estrogen levels. This could cause reproductive system problems such as early puberty or failure to fully develop through puberty, impotence or irregular menstrual periods.

Certain chemotherapy drugs can affect the ovaries or testicles and cause reproductive problems for children as they get older. These problems include puberty starting earlier or later than average and infertility. The higher the total dose of certain chemotherapy drugs, the greater the risk of damage.

Find out more about problems with male reproductive organs and female reproductive organs.

Second cancers

Treatment for childhood brain and spinal cord tumours increases the risk of developing a second cancer. The level of risk depends on different factors, such as the type of the first cancer and which treatments were given for it.

Children who received radiation therapy tend to have a higher risk of a second cancer occurring in the area that was treated. Chemotherapy with alkylating agents can raise the risk of developing acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) or myelodysplastic syndrome.

Children treated for cancer today have a lower risk of developing a second cancer than they did in the past. New chemotherapy combinations, lower doses of chemotherapy and lower doses of radiation that are more accurately targeted to the tumour have lowered the risk of a second cancer.

Find out more about second cancers.

Expert review and references

  • Donna Johnston, MD
  • Nirav Thacker, MD

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

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