Childhood cancer is ordinarily treatable. Although it can be scary when one’s child develops cancer, children’s resilience means cancers in children respond very well to treatment. The only exception is brain tumors, which, because it requires such precision to treat anything in the brain, are the riskiest for children. That includes a cancer of the brainstem called a pontine glioma, one of the most dangerous tumors to treat.
The brainstem is the part of the brain that controls essential function. It’s difficult to label any part of the brain the most important—the entire thing is important—but it is the brainstem in which dysfunction has the most inevitably noticeable and broadest, and widest ranging effects. The pons, where pontine glioma develops, is responsible for breathing.
Children who develop pontine glioma will have trouble walking, standing, and speaking, because the tumor affects parts of the brain that communicate with the arms and legs, as well as the speech areas. It also affects the facial muscles, making eye movement and swallowing difficult and causing one side of the face to droop. Children with this type of tumor may also have trouble closing their eyes all the way, and may have double vision. Pontine gliomas often grow rapidly, causing damage as they do.
It is not known what causes these tumors to develop. There is a type of fungal infection of the scalp that is ordinarily treated with radiation, and children who have had this radiation treatment are more prone to developing glioma of the brainstem, but not all cases can be traced to that source. In a recent study, researchers found that the genetic code of the tumor contains gene mutations that had not previously been linked to any form of cancer, and they say this may prove to be a useful diagnostic tool in the future.
Sadly, children diagnosed with pontine glioma are not expected to survive more than nine months. Fortunately, however, new treatments are being developed that could well save lives. Now that mutations linked with pontine glioma have been discovered, scientists are tracing the effects of those mutations, determining how they relate to tumor development, and finding ways to prevent tumors from developing and destroy them when they do.