Radiation Therapy for Brain & Spinal Cord Tumors in Children

For some types of brain and spinal cord tumors, doctors at NYU Langone’s Stephen D. Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders prescribe radiation therapy, which uses high-energy radiation beams to destroy a tumor. They may use it before surgery to shrink a tumor or afterward if the tumor is large or wrapped in nerves and blood vessels and can’t be removed completely.

At NYU Langone, your child’s pediatric neuro-oncologist and pediatric neurosurgeon collaborate with a radiation oncologist to create a treatment plan best suited for the type of tumor and its location in the brain or spinal cord.

Our doctors use enough radiation to destroy the tumor, with minimal damage to surrounding healthy tissue. They rarely prescribe radiation therapy for children under the age of three because of possible long-term effects, which can include problems with bone growth, learning, or memory. Our specialists provide ongoing support to address these issues.

External Beam Radiation Therapy

With this therapy, a machine delivers high-energy X-ray radiation from outside the body to treat tumors. It’s the most widely used type of radiation therapy. During the treatment, your child lies on a table that slides into a machine. Your child may be fitted with a plastic body cast to prevent movement during the treatment. Young children may require general anesthesia. The procedure typically takes 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the type and location of the tumor.

External beam radiation therapy is not as focused as other types, which means that it may affect healthy tissue and raise the likelihood of side effects. This outpatient treatment requires daily sessions, five days a week, for five to six weeks, depending on the type and size of the tumor. Parents can wait outside the treatment room, where they are able to see and speak to the child through a closed-circuit TV system.

Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy

Intensity modulated radiation therapy involves manipulating high-energy X-ray radiation beams of varying intensity to conform to the shape of the tumor. It’s a more focused radiation treatment than standard external beam radiation therapy. By targeting the tumor, it allows for higher doses of radiation to be delivered than traditional radiation therapy. This approach minimizes damage to surrounding tissues and results in fewer side effects.

Proton Therapy

Proton therapy works by accelerating positively charged particles called protons to rapid speeds—almost two-thirds the speed of light—and aiming them at cancer cells to damage their DNA, causing them to die. This allows doctors to deliver focused, high doses of radiation directly to the tumor, with minimal damage to surrounding tissue in the brain and spinal cord.

It is used most often on childhood brain and spinal cord tumors that have well-delineated, or clear-cut, borders, such as glioma. It’s also sometimes used for children who require radiation therapy to the entire brain and spinal cord, such as those with medulloblastoma. This helps minimize radiation to healthy tissue and organs, including the heart and lungs.

This 30- to 90-minute outpatient treatment requires daily sessions, five days a week, for one week to two months, depending on the tumor’s type and size. Young children who need help lying still may require general anesthesia.

Managing Side Effects

Because radiation therapy may affect healthy tissue, short-term side effects are possible, depending on the part of the body treated with radiation. The most common side effects include fatigue and red, burning skin that peels easily. Others may include changes in the way food tastes, dry mouth, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, headaches, mouth sores, memory problems, mood changes, mouth and throat infections, difficulty chewing, speaking, or swallowing, and trouble learning due to fatigue and brain damage.

NYU Langone specialists can help your child cope with side effects through our medical, emotional, and psychological support services. Our experts also provide support for parents.

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