What is brain stem glioma?
A brain stem glioma is a cancerous mass that forms in the brain stem. Typically, these tumours are astrocytomas that originate from glial cells in the cerebellum called astrocytes.
Typically, around 75% of cases occur in people under the age of 20. However, they are known to occur in adults as well. The overall prognosis and treatment options for brain stem gliomas vary depending on their stage and position.
Types of Brain stem glioma
Focal brainstem gliomas: These tumors grow at a slower rate, and are restricted to one area of the brainstem (usually the midbrain and medulla). Because of this, they are generally easier to treat and have a much better prognosis. Focal brainstem gliomas have a five-year survival rate of around 90%.
Diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas (DIPG): DIPG is a much more aggressive grade IV tumour. They usually start in the pons but spread quickly by invading neighbouring tissue. Currently, there exists very few effective options of treatment for this tumour and it has a much lower prognosis.
Causes and risk factors of brainstem glioma:
In most cases, the cause of a brainstem glioma is unknown. They generally occur randomly. However, there are several rare genetic conditions that can increase the likelihood of brainstem glioma.
Neurofibromatosis – Patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) are at a higher risk of developing brainstem gliomas.
Young age – Children, teenagers and young adults are at the highest risk of developing brainstem gliomas. However, they can occur in adults too.
How is brain stem glioma diagnosed?
Brainstem gliomas are usually detected using one of the following methods:
- Physical exam: An exam of the body to check a patient’s health, This will usually involve a close examination of the suspected area, as well as an assessment of prior health conditions and concerns.
- Neurological exam: A neurological exam involves a series of tests that are designed to detect irregular brain function. This may involve checks on a person’s coordination, memory, mental state and reflexes.
- MRI: An MRI is a procedure that uses radio waves to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the brain. A substance called gadolinium is then injected into a vein. The gadolinium gathers around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture.
- Biopsy: In some cases, a biopsy may be the most effective way to diagnose cancer. During a biopsy, some tissue is taken from the affected area. It is then examined under a microscope to detect cancer cells.
Symptoms of brainstem glioma:
The symptoms of brainstem glioma may vary depending on its severity and location. Below are some of the most common symptoms:
- Irregular eye movement – One or both eyes may be moving irregularly or turned inward.
- Vision issues – Reduced vision, blindness and other vision issues are common signs of brainstem glioma.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Headaches – Patients may notice headaches when they first wake up in the morning. These headaches can also occur randomly and may be accompanied by nausea.
- Loss of coordination – Difficulty with coordination, reduced motor skills or loss of control in one side of the face/body are all symptoms of brainstem gliomas.
Treatment for brainstem glioma:
Surgery – For grade I brainstem tumours, surgery can usually be used to fully remove the tumour before it spreads. However, surgery may not be a viable option for grade II-IV tumours. This is because it can affect critical areas of the brainstem and be too dangerous to remove.
For this reason, surgery (if viable) is usually recommended to be done as soon as possible. This ensures that the tumour is removed before it can spread.
Radiation therapy – During radiation therapy, the affected area is targeted by high-energy radiation. This radiation is usually administered by a machine in a process called external beam therapy.
Radiation therapy is usually used as an initial treatment and can help shrink a tumour so that it can safely be removed via surgery. It can also be used post-surgery to reduce the risk of a tumour growing back.
Radiation therapy can cause side effects, such as:
- Extreme fatigue
- Irritated skin, dryness itchiness and peeling
- Changes in appetite
- Increased risk of other cancers in the future
During chemotherapy, drugs are administered either orally or intravenously to target and destroy cancer cells. Due to its strong side effects, chemotherapy is usually administered over several “sessions” to give your body a chance to recover. The type of drugs used will vary depending on the cancer’s location, size and spread.
Common side effects of chemotherapy include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of hair
- Bowel problems
What support can we give for brainstem glioma?
Brainstem glioma is a rare cancer, meaning it is not as well known as other forms of cancer. Without a Ribbon is an Australian organisation that provides support for individuals who suffer from rare cancers. We provide a designated platform for Warriors to obtain information specific to their Rare Cancer. We also provide annual opportunities for our Warriors to meet and learn from each other.
If you or someone you know suffers from a rare cancer such as brainstem glioma, we can help and support you through your journey thanks to the generous donations we receive. Click the link below to sign up and become a Warrior today!Sign Up
You can help us with your donation:
Without a Ribbon is a charity that works hard to aid those who suffer from rare cancers. You can help our cause in a variety of ways:
Donations – Without a Ribbon is grateful for every donation received. Giving to Without a Ribbon helps us to provide ongoing support, organise the annual gathering and subsidise the costs of our Warriors attending these conferences.
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