The Cayman Islands Cancer Society is focusing awareness this month on childhood cancers.
Various activities will be centered on childhood cancer education and awareness.
Whether you are 1 or 100, cancer touches us all. No matter your race, gender, beliefs or creed, cancer does not discriminate. Everyone is at risk.
For children, brain tumors are the most common solid tumors, and in the United States, nearly 1,500 to 2,000 children are affected every year.
Brain tumors account for about 1 out of 5 childhood cancers. Most often, children are diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 8, but tumors can occur at any age. Brain tumors that occur in infants and children are very different from adult brain tumors.
A brain tumor results from an abnormal growth of tissue in the brain. Brain tumors originate in the cells of the brain and are either malignant or benign. A benign tumor does not contain malignant cells and usually, once removed, does not recur. Most benign brain tumors do not invade surrounding tissue. These tumors can, however, cause symptoms similar to cancerous tumors because of their size and location in the brain.
Malignant brain tumors contain malignant cells. These tumors are usually fast growing and invade surrounding tissue. They very rarely spread to other areas of the body, but may recur after treatment. Sometimes, brain lesions are not cancerous but are malignant in their location and site of growth; affecting vital functions of the brain.
Pediatric brain tumors are usually found early because the brain regulates vital functions such as memory, learning, hearing, sight, smell and emotion, and when these vital functions are disrupted, signs appear quickly.
In Cayman, Hannah Meeson’s parents, Gaylene and Nigel, began to notice her losing balance and walking into things. At the onset, this was gradual but over a period of two weeks, this became progressively worse. She even fell out of bed a few times at night and didn’t get up. When her eyesight changed, her parents took her for a checkup. She was prescribed glasses but nothing untoward was picked up. After further tests, Hannah was diagnosed in July 2012, at age 4, with anaplastic medulloblastoma.
The types of cancers that develop in children most times differ from the types that develop in adults. Childhood cancers are often the result of DNA changes in cells that take place very early in life, sometimes even before birth. Adults can reduce their risk of certain cancers with lifestyle changes (such as maintaining a healthy weight or quitting smoking), but at present there are no known ways to prevent most cancers in children.
Brain tumor symptoms depend on the child’s age and the area of the brain affected. This can vary for each child.
Common symptoms include: Headache, vomiting, seizures, blurred vision and impaired speech, mood changes, poor coordination, difficulty with balance, weakness or tingling in the arms and legs, and increased head circumference and bulging fontanel (“soft spot”) in children under 2 years.
Because symptoms might develop gradually and can be like those of other common childhood conditions, brain tumors can be difficult to diagnose. If a child has any of these symptoms, especially if they don’t go away or get worse over time, the child’s doctor should be seen so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
If a doctor suspects that a child has a brain tumor, imaging studies of the brain will be ordered. A computerized tomography (CT scan) or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to reveal brain abnormalities.
If a tumor is revealed during the imaging study, the next procedure will be consultation with a neurosurgeon (a specialist in childhood brain surgery) and then surgery. Removing the tumor completely is the main aim of the surgery but if that isn’t possible, a partial removal of the tumor or a biopsy may be done to confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy helps tell whether a tumor is cancerous and what type of tumor it is.
Based on what is found on looking at the tumor under the microscope, doctors will determine the “grade” of the tumor. A higher-grade tumor is one that grows faster and poses greater danger to nearby tissues. A lower-grade tumor grows more slowly. It may still be serious even if it’s a lower-grade tumor. A physician may order further tests.
Since there are many forms of childhood brain tumors, some treatments may be better suited over others for the child. The doctor and healthcare team will suggest a treatment plan that is based on the type of tumor that the child has, where it is, how much it has spread, the child’s age and other aspects of the child’s health.
Treatment of childhood brain tumors starts with surgery to remove the tumor. Before surgery, children are often given steroids to reduce swelling in the brain and anticonvulsant medications to prevent seizures. Neurosurgeons will remove as much of the tumor as possible and remove a tissue sample for analysis.
Chemotherapy is the standard treatment for brain tumors in children under the age of three. Chemotherapy may be cancer-killing drugs taken daily, an injection into a blood vessel or muscle once a week or infusion through IV for several days at a time each month. For young children, chemotherapy is often used to eliminate or delay the need for radiation therapy.
Radiation is used after surgery if necessary. Radiation directs high-dose X-rays to kill the tumor cells and shrink the tumor. It is usually given daily for 6 to 8 weeks. Radiation is not used in children under the age of three because of possible long-term effects to developing brains.