About 3,000 children in the United States are diagnosed with brain tumors each year, most between the ages of 3 to 12. These tumors are very different from brain tumors in adults and are generally more responsive to treatment.
The majority of brain tumors are caused by genetic abnormalities within the tumor cells. Researchers are studying the parents of children with brain tumors and their exposure to certain chemicals. Some chemicals may change the structure of a gene that protects the body from cancer. In addition, children who have received radiation therapy to the head as part of treatment for other malignancies have a higher risk for developing brain tumors.
Brain tumors may be benign or malignant. Benign tumors don't contain cancer cells. If completely removed by surgery, they often don't return. Benign tumors that can't be completely removed, however, may continue to grow and may require treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation. Malignant or cancerous brain tumors usually grow quickly, spread to surrounding tissue and may return after treatment.
UCSF neurologists and neurosurgeons are supported by one of the most advanced diagnostic imaging centers in the world, staffed by pioneers in the field. We offer MRI scanning during operations to increase the accuracy of surgery, and are one of only a few centers in California offering noninvasive treatment with the Gamma Knife and CyberKnife.
We also lead the way in research for new treatments. Our patients have the opportunity to participate in studies of promising new medications and treatments. Our research laboratories also study the molecular foundations of childhood brain tumors.
There are two types of brain tumors — primary and secondary.
Tumors that begin in brain tissue are known as primary brain tumors. The most common are gliomas, which begin in the glia, or supportive, tissue of the brain. There are several types of gliomas, including astrocytomas, brainstem gliomas and ependymomas.
Cancer that begins in other parts of the body but spreads to the brain is called a secondary brain tumor. For example, if lung cancer spreads to the brain, it is a secondary brain tumor resulting from metastatic lung cancer. The cells in the secondary tumor resemble abnormal lung cells, not abnormal brain cells. Secondary brain tumors are rare in children, accounting for less than 5 percent of cases.