Unfortunately, the time it usually takes before a child’s brain tumor is finally diagnosed is often long enough for the cancer to grow a lot during the waiting period.
Signs of a brain tumor in a child are also the same signs that common benign conditions cause, such as one eye drifting inward or sudden pickiness in food preferences.
“Brain tumors are the most common solid tumor entity in childhood,” says a paper in the Journal of Child Neurology (Dec. 2007, Reulecke et al).
“Symptoms are often unspecific, depending not only on the localization of the tumor, but also on the age of the child,” continues the report.
There are factors that affect the time span between when the symptoms of a brain tumor are first noticed and when the diagnosis is officially made.
The researchers wanted to know what those factors were, so they collected the records of 245 pediatric patients who were treated for brain tumors at the neuropediatric department of the University of Muenster between 1980 and 2004.
The average length of time for these patients was 24 days.
Some parents will immediately demand an MRI the second their child develops a concerning symptom such as apparent increased clumsiness, trouble concentrating or complaints of headaches.
Other parents won’t even think of brain cancer and instead will be locked into thinking that the causes of the new symptoms are normal growth or fatigue, feeling stressed or not getting enough sleep lately.
They are less likely, then, to push for an MRI or even ask, “Could this be a brain tumor?”
Degree of index of suspicion on the part of the parents plays a role.
Brain tumors in children have an incidence rate of 4.28 per 100,000 child-years, says a report in Neurosurgery (August, 2002, Mehta et al).
In this particular study, the two most common tumors among the field of study subjects were the astrocytoma and the medulloblastoma.
The average time between noticed first symptom onset and diagnosis was 7.3 months.
That’s a stunning disparity: 24 days in one study and seven months in another.
In the Mehta study, only 41 percent of the children’s brain tumors were correctly diagnosed within three visits to various doctors.
One reason for such a delay between when symptoms of a brain tumor first begin appearing and when it’s actually diagnosed is that the symptoms may seem to be originating in a part of the body distant from the head.
For example, brain cancer can cause nausea or vomiting, making the parent think there’s something amiss with their child’s GI tract.
The sequence of physician visits might be 1) general pediatrician and 2) general gastroenterologist.
Or, it might be 1) general gastroenterologist and 2) pediatric gastroenterologist.
There may be a few more visits with new doctors until an appointment is finally made with a pediatric neurologist.
How many people automatically think brain tumor when a child upchucks?
Even a general pediatrician won’t normally suspect this and instead may ask about the child’s diet and might also suspect an infection.
“Tumors located in the brainstem required significantly longer times for diagnosis, compared with those located elsewhere,” says the paper.
So every time your child exhibits a new symptom anywhere in their body, should you rush to a pediatric neurologist?
If your child has been healthy all this time, you’ll want to simply arrange to discuss these matters with their regular pediatrician as a launching pad to better understanding when to be suspicious for a brain tumor.
Nevertheless, even in cases in which the parents have a low threshold for suspicion – whether based on being naturally vigilant or based on the nature of the symptoms – there can still be a long time before the brain tumor is diagnosed in their child.