Treating Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children
General comments about treatment
Children and teens with brain and spinal cord tumors and their families have special needs that can be met best by cancer centers for children and teens, working closely with the child’s primary care doctor. These centers offer the advantage of being treated by teams of specialists who know the differences between cancers in adults and those in children and teens, as well as the unique needs of younger people with cancer.
For childhood brain and spinal cord tumors, this team is often led by a pediatric neurosurgeon, a doctor who uses surgery to treat brain and nervous system tumors in children. Other doctors on the team may include:
- Pediatric neurologist: a doctor who treats brain and nervous system diseases in children
- Radiation oncologist: a doctor who uses radiation to treat cancer
- Pediatric oncologist: a doctor who uses chemotherapy and other medicines to treat children’s cancers
- Endocrinologist: a doctor who treats diseases in glands that secrete hormones
Many other specialists may be involved in your child’s care as well, including physician assistants (PAs), nurse practitioners (NPs), nurses, psychologists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and other health professionals.
Going through cancer treatment with a child often means meeting lots of specialists and learning about parts of the medical system you probably haven’t had contact with before. You can find out more about this in our document Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Understanding the Health Care System.
Before treatment, the doctors and other members of the team will help you, as a parent, understand the tests that will need to be done. The team’s social worker will also counsel you about the problems you and your child might have during and after treatments such as surgery, and might be able to help you find housing and financial aid if needed.
Other team members, such as a psychologist and specialists in rehabilitation, may also see your child before treatment begins. For example, if the tumor is slow growing and your child’s condition is stable, he or she may be seen by a psychologist before treatment to assess any damage the tumor may have caused. Most of the work of these specialists takes place after treatment.
The main treatments for children with brain and spinal cord tumors are:
In many cases children will get some combination of these treatments. Treatment is based on the type of tumor and other factors. Doctors plan each child’s treatment individually to give them the best chance of a cure while limiting side effects as much as possible.
It’s important to discuss your child’s treatment options as well as their possible side effects with the treatment team to help make the decision that’s the best fit for your child. If there is anything you don’t understand, ask to have it explained. (See the section What should you ask your doctor about your child’s brain or spinal cord tumor? for some questions to ask.)
If time allows, getting a second opinion from another doctor experienced with your child’s type of tumor is often a good idea. It can give you more information and help you feel more confident about the treatment plan you choose.
Thinking about taking part in a clinical trial
Clinical trials are carefully controlled research studies that are done to get a closer look at promising new treatments or procedures. Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the art cancer treatment. In some cases they may be the only way to get access to newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they are not right for everyone.
If you would like to learn more about clinical trials that might be right for you, start by asking your doctor if your clinic or hospital conducts clinical trials. You can also call our clinical trials matching service at 1-800-303-5691 for a list of studies that meet your medical needs, or see Clinical Trials to learn more.
Considering complementary and alternative methods
You may hear about alternative or complementary methods that your doctor hasn’t mentioned to treat your cancer or relieve symptoms. These methods can include vitamins, herbs, and special diets, or other methods such as acupuncture or massage, to name a few.
Complementary methods refer to treatments that are used along with your regular medical care. Alternative treatments are used instead of a doctor’s medical treatment. Although some of these methods might be helpful in relieving symptoms or helping you feel better, many have not been proven to work. Some might even be dangerous.
Be sure to talk to your cancer care team about any method you are thinking about using. They can help you learn what is known (or not known) about the method, which can help you make an informed decision. See Complementary and Alternative Medicine to learn more.
Help getting through cancer treatment
Your cancer care team will be your first source of information and support, but there are other resources for help when you need it. Hospital- or clinic-based support services are an important part of your care. These might include nursing or social work services, financial aid, nutritional advice, rehab, or spiritual help.
The American Cancer Society also has programs and services – including rides to treatment, lodging, support groups, and more – to help you get through treatment. Call our National Cancer Information Center at 1-800-227-2345 and speak with one of our trained specialists on call 24 hours a day, every day.
The next few sections describe the various types of treatments used for brain and spinal cord tumors in children. This is followed by a description of the most common treatment approaches based on the type of tumor.