Overview and Facts about Astrocytoma
Astrocytoma is a tumor that can appear in various parts of the brain and nervous system, including the cerebellum, the cerebrum, the central areas of the brain, the brainstem and the spinal cord. Tumors form in the star-shaped brain cells that make up the supportive tissue of the brain, known as astrocytes. Astrocytomas are classified by grade:
- Grade I: slow-growing tumors that are usually benign (noncancerous).
- Grade II: tumors that tend to invade surrounding tissue and grow at a relatively slow pace.
- Grade III: tumors that have tentacle-like projections that grow into surrounding tissue. These tumors are considered malignant (cancerous).
- Grade IV: malignant tumors that are very aggressive and spread rapidly.
Grade I tumors typically occur in children, while grades II to IV tend to occur more often in males as well as in people aged 45 and over.
Signs and Symptoms of Astrocytoma
Symptoms vary depending on the location and size of the tumor. Some will have no symptoms until the tumor is large. Others may have slowly evolving symptoms, or in some patients, symptoms may progress rapidly. Symptoms may include:
- Changes in ability to think and learn
- Double or blurred vision
- Mood or personality changes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Speech problems
In young children, the growing pressure of an astrocytoma tumor inside the skull may enlarge the head.
When the tumor affects the spinal cord, symptoms may include weakness, clumsiness, trouble walking, a pins-and-needles feeling in the arms and legs and bowel or bladder problems.
Causes and Risk Factors of Astrocytoma
The exact cause of astrocytomas is unknown. Although most cases are believed to be sporadic (occurring by chance), some tumors may also be associated with chromosomal or genetic mutations.
Tests and Diagnosis of Astrocytoma
Neuro-Oncology specialists rely on several tests to determine an accurate diagnosis, including a neurological exam. This exam looks for changes in vision, hearing, balance, coordination, strength, sensations and reflexes. Doctors will also use a variety of imaging tests to confirm the presence, location and type of tumor. Such tests include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans.
A biopsy or extensive removal of the tumor may also be performed to evaluate cells removed from the tumor under a microscope to confirm that the sample tissue is cancerous. Following this advanced pathologic and molecular testing is done to further understand the tumor type which helps determine outcome and choice of treatment.
Treatment and Care of Astrocytoma
Treatment options depend on the grade, molecular profile, age, tumor size and extent of resection of the tumor. Treatment is customized based on various factors that your doctors will discuss with you.
- Grade I: These tumors are typically treated by surgery alone.
- Grade II: Surgery is the first step to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Further treatment is dependent of various factors like age, amount of remaining tumor, number of tumors in the brain and original size of tumor.
- Grade III: Surgery is the first step to remove as much of the tumor as possible, followed by radiation and chemotherapy to treat the remaining tumor.
- Grade IV: Surgery is also the first step to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Surgery is followed by radiation and chemotherapy.