Astrocytomas are tumors that start in star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes. An astrocyte is a type of glial cell. Glial cells hold nerve cells in place, bring food and oxygen to them, and help protect them from disease, such as infection. Gliomas are tumors that form from glial cells. An astrocytoma is a type of glioma.
Astrocytoma is the most common type of glioma diagnosed in children. It can form anywhere in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
This summary is about the treatment of tumors that begin in astrocytes in the brain (primary brain tumors). Metastatic brain tumors are formed by cancer cells that begin in other parts of the body and spread to the brain. Treatment of metastatic brain tumors is not discussed here.
Brain tumors can occur in both children and adults. However, treatment for children may be different than treatment for adults. See the following PDQ summaries for more information about other types of brain tumors in children and adults:
Benign brain tumors grow and press on nearby areas of the brain. They rarely spread into other tissues. Malignant brain tumors are likely to grow quickly and spread into other brain tissue. When a tumor grows into or presses on an area of the brain, it may stop that part of the brain from working the way it should. Both benign and malignant brain tumors can cause signs and symptoms and almost all need treatment.The central nervous system controls many important body functions.
Astrocytomas are most common in these parts of the central nervous system (CNS):
Anatomy of the brain. The supratentorial area (the upper part of the brain) contains the cerebrum, lateral ventricle and third ventricle (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), choroid plexus, hypothalamus, pineal gland, pituitary gland, and optic nerve. The posterior fossa/infratentorial area (the lower back part of the brain) contains the cerebellum, tectum, fourth ventricle, and brain stem (pons and medulla). The tentorium separates the supratentorium from the infratentorium (right panel). The skull and meninges protect the brain and spinal cord (left panel).
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your child's doctor if you think your child may be at risk. Possible risk factors for astrocytoma include:
Signs and symptoms depend on the following:
Some tumors do not cause signs or symptoms. Signs and symptoms may be caused by childhood astrocytomas or by other conditions. Check with your child's doctor if your child has any of the following:
The following tests and procedures may be used:
If doctors think there may be an astrocytoma, a biopsy may be done to remove a sample of tissue. For tumors in the brain, a part of the skull is removed and a needle is used to remove tissue. Sometimes, the needle is guided by a computer. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor may remove as much tumor as safely possible during the same surgery. Because it can be hard to tell the difference between types of brain tumors, you may want to have your child's tissue sample checked by a pathologist who has experience in diagnosing brain tumors.
Craniotomy: An opening is made in the skull and a piece of the skull is removed to show part of the brain.
The following test may be done on the tissue that was removed:
Sometimes tumors form in a place that makes them hard to remove. If removing the tumor may cause severe physical, emotional, or learning problems, a biopsy is done and more treatment is given after the biopsy.
Children who have NF1 may form a low-grade astrocytoma in the area of the brain that controls vision and may not need a biopsy. If the tumor does not continue to grow or symptoms do not occur, surgery to remove the tumor may not be needed.Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
For recurrent astrocytoma, prognosis and treatment depend on how much time passed between the time treatment ended and the time the astrocytoma recurred.
Staging is the process used to find out how much cancer there is and if cancer has spread. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.
There is no standard staging system for childhood astrocytoma. Treatment is based on the following:
The grade of the tumor describes how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread.
The following grades are used:Low-grade astrocytomas
Low-grade astrocytomas are slow-growing and rarely spread to other parts of the brain and spinal cord or other parts of the body. There are many types of low-grade astrocytomas. Low-grade astrocytomas can be either:
Children who have neurofibromatosis type 1 may have more than one low-grade tumor in the brain. Children who have tuberous sclerosis have an increased risk of subependymal giant cell astrocytoma.High-grade astrocytomas
High-grade astrocytomas are fast-growing and often spread within the brain and spinal cord. There are several types of high-grade astrocytomas. High grade astrocytomas can be either:
Childhood astrocytomas usually do not spread to other parts of the body.An MRI is done after surgery.
An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is done in the first few days after surgery. This is to find out how much tumor, if any, remains after surgery and to plan further treatment.
A recurrent childhood astrocytoma is an astrocytoma that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the same place as the first tumor or in other parts of the body. High-grade astrocytomas often recur within 3 years either in the place where the cancer first formed or somewhere else in the CNS.
Different types of treatment are available for children with astrocytomas. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.
Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.Children with astrocytomas should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers who are experts in treating childhood brain tumors.
Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other healthcare providers who are experts in treating children with brain tumors and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:
Signs or symptoms caused by the tumor may begin before diagnosis. These signs or symptoms may continue for months or years. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about signs or symptoms caused by the tumor that may continue after treatment.Treatment for childhood astrocytomas may cause side effects.
For information about side effects that begin during treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.
Side effects from cancer treatment that begin after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include the following:
Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the effects cancer treatment can have on your child. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information.)Six types of treatment are used:Surgery
Surgery is used to diagnose and treat childhood astrocytoma, as discussed in the General Information section of this summary. If cancer cells remain after surgery, further treatment depends on:
After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.Observation
Observation is closely monitoring a patient’s condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change. Observation may be used:
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type of tumor and where the tumor formed in the brain or spinal cord. External radiation therapy is used to treat childhood astrocytomas.
Radiation therapy to the brain can affect growth and development, especially in young children. For children younger than 3 years, chemotherapy may be given instead, to delay or reduce the need for radiation therapy.Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is the use of more than one anticancer drug.
The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type of tumor and where the tumor formed in the brain or spinal cord. Systemic combination chemotherapy is used in the treatment of children with astrocytoma. High-dose chemotherapy may be used in the treatment of children with newly diagnosed high-grade astrocytoma.High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is a way of giving high doses of chemotherapy and replacing blood-forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.
For high-grade astrocytoma that has come back after treatment, high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplant is used if there is only a small amount of tumor.Targeted therapy
Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.
There are different types of targeted therapy:
There are different types of monoclonal antibody therapy:
Immune checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint proteins, such as PD-L1 on tumor cells and PD-1 on T cells, help keep immune responses in check. The binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body (left panel). Blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-PD-L1 or anti-PD-1) allows the T cells to kill tumor cells (right panel).
See Drugs Approved for Brain Tumors for more information.New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.Other drug therapy
Lenalidomide is a type of angiogenesis inhibitor. It prevents the growth of new blood vessels that are needed by a tumor to grow.If fluid builds up around the brain and spinal cord, a cerebrospinal fluid diversion procedure may be done.
Cerebrospinal fluid diversion is a method used to drain fluid that has built up around the brain and spinal cord. A shunt (long, thin tube) is placed in a ventricle (fluid-filled space) of the brain and threaded under the skin to another part of the body, usually the abdomen. The shunt carries extra fluid away from the brain so it may be absorbed elsewhere in the body.
Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) diversion. Extra CSF is removed from a ventricle in the brain through a shunt (tube) and is emptied into the abdomen. A valve controls the flow of CSF.
For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.
Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.
Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.
Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI’s clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.Follow-up tests may be needed.
Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. (See the General Information section for a list of tests.) Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.
Regular MRIs will continue to be done after treatment has ended. The results of the MRI can show if your child's condition has changed or if the astrocytoma has recurred (come back). If the results of the MRI show a mass in the brain, a biopsy may be done to find out if it is made up of dead tumor cells or if new cancer cells are growing.
For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.
When the tumor is first diagnosed, treatment for childhood low-grade astrocytoma depends on where the tumor is, and is usually surgery. An MRI is done after surgery to see if there is tumor remaining.
If the tumor was completely removed by surgery, more treatment may not be needed and the child is closely watched to see if signs or symptoms appear or change. This is called observation.
If there is tumor remaining after surgery, treatment may include the following:
In some cases, observation is used for children who have a visual pathway glioma. In other cases, treatment may include surgery to remove the tumor, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. A goal of treatment is to save as much vision as possible. The effect of tumor growth on the child's vision will be closely followed during treatment.
Children with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) may not need treatment unless the tumor grows or signs or symptoms, such as vision problems, appear. When the tumor grows or signs or symptoms appear, treatment may include surgery to remove the tumor, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy.
Children with tuberous sclerosis may develop benign (not cancer) tumors in the brain called subependymal giant cell astrocytomas (SEGAs). Targeted therapy with everolimus or sirolimus may be used instead of surgery, to shrink the tumors.
When low-grade astrocytoma recurs after treatment, it usually comes back where the tumor first formed. Before more cancer treatment is given, imaging tests, biopsy, or surgery are done to find out if there is cancer and how much there is.
Treatment of recurrent childhood low-grade astrocytoma may include the following:
Treatment of childhood high-grade astrocytoma may include the following:
When high-grade astrocytoma recurs after treatment, it usually comes back where the tumor first formed. Before more cancer treatment is given, imaging tests, biopsy, or surgery are done to find out if there is cancer and how much there is.
Treatment of recurrent childhood high-grade astrocytoma may include the following:
For more information about childhood astrocytomas, see the following:
For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources, see the following:
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PDQ® Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Childhood Astrocytomas Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/patient/child-astrocytoma-treament-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389391]
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Physicians version: CDR0000614165
Date first published: 2010-02-05 Date last modified: 2018-04-09
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