Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children

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Treating Brain/CNS Tumors In Children TOPICS

Chemotherapy for brain and spinal cord tumors in children

Chemotherapy (chemo) uses anti-cancer drugs that are usually given into a vein (IV) or taken by mouth. These drugs enter the bloodstream and reach almost all areas of the body. However, many chemo drugs are not able to enter the brain and reach tumor cells.

For some brain tumors, the drugs may be given directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain or into the spinal canal below the spinal cord. To help with this, a thin tube, known as a ventricular access catheter, may be inserted through a small hole in the skull and into a ventricle during a minor operation (see the “Surgery” section).

In general, chemotherapy is used for faster growing tumors. Some types of brain tumors, such as medulloblastoma, tend to respond well to chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy is most often used along with other types of treatment such as surgery and radiation therapy. It may be used instead of radiation therapy in children 3 years and younger.

Some of the chemo drugs used to treat children with brain tumors include:

These drugs may be used alone or in various combinations, depending on the type of brain tumor. Chemotherapy is given in cycles. Each cycle generally lasts about 3 to 4 weeks and is followed by a rest period to give the body time to recover.

Possible side effects of chemotherapy

Chemo drugs attack cells that are dividing quickly, which is why they often work against cancer cells. But other cells in the body, such as those in the bone marrow, the lining of the mouth and intestines, and the hair follicles, also divide quickly. These cells are also likely to be affected by chemotherapy, which can lead to side effects.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the type of drugs, the amount taken, and how long they are taken. Possible side effects can include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased chance of infections (from having too few white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising or bleeding (from having too few blood platelets)
  • Fatigue (from having too few red blood cells or other factors)

Some of the most effective drugs against brain tumors tend to have fewer of these side effects than other common chemo drugs, but they are still possible. These side effects are usually short-term and go away once treatment is finished. Your child’s doctor and treating team will watch closely for any side effects. There are often ways to lessen these side effects. For example, drugs can be given to help prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

Along with the risks above, some chemo drugs may have specific side effects (although these are less common). For example, cisplatin and carboplatin can also cause kidney damage and hearing loss. Your doctor will check your child’s kidney function and hearing periodically if he or she is given these drugs.

Be sure to ask your child’s doctor or nurse about medicines to help reduce side effects, and let them know if your child has side effects so they can be managed effectively. In some cases, the doses of the chemo drugs may need to be reduced or treatment may need to be delayed or stopped to prevent the effects from getting worse.

For more information on chemotherapy, see our separate document, Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Last Medical Review: 03/22/2013
Last Revised: 01/31/2014