Astrocytoma – Information, Treatment & Support

An astrocytoma (also called an astrocytic glioma) is the most common type of glioma.

What is an astrocytoma?

It develops from an astrocyte, which is a star-shaped cell in the brain. They most commonly appear in the brain, but sometimes are found in the spinal cord. People of any age can develop an astrocytoma, but those in the area of the brain where they develop (called the cerebrum) are more common in adults. In young people or children, astrocytoma are mainly found in the cerebellum.

What causes it?

The causes of an astrocytoma are unknown. This is the case with lots of brain cancers.

What are the symptoms?

Lots of headaches, nausea/vomiting and problems with vision are all symptoms of an astrocytic glioma. This is due to the tumour taking up space in the head, which can cause swelling. Other symptoms can include fits and seizures- which are often caused by the location of the tumour, or changes in personality, balance and coordination.
TIP: If you have any of these symptoms you should have them checked by your doctor – but remember, they are common to many illnesses.

After visiting a GP a referral may be made to a hospital for some tests. These may include:

If the results of the tests show an astrocytoma, another referral will be made to a doctor who specialises in the treatment of diseases of the brain (called a neurologist), possibly a neurosurgeon (a brain surgeon) and an oncologist (cancer doctor).

Grading:

Once the cancer is diagnosed, it will be graded. This means that cells will be looked at under a microscope and the rate in which they grow will be determined. Cells that look mostly normal (and are slow-growing) are given a lower grade than cells that look abnormal (and are fast-growing). There are four grades: Grades 1 and 2 are low-grade, and grade 3 and 4 are high-grade.

Low-grade astrocytic tumours:

These are slow growing and don’t usually spread. They are usually removed with surgery. Grade 1 tumours generally don’t come back, however grade 2 can return.

  • Grade 1 – pilocytic astrocytoma
  • Grade 2 – low-grade (diffuse) astrocytoma

High-grade astrocytic tumours:

These grow faster and are more likely to spread to other parts of the brain. They are more likely to come back after initial treatment than the low-grade tumours.

  • Grade 3 – anaplastic astrocytoma
  • Grade 4 – glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).

A team of doctors and other staff at the hospital will plan the treatment. It will depend on the size of the tumour and where it is. A person with an astrocytoma may be treated by an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy) a neurosurgeon (a surgeon who specialises in brain surgery) and a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiation).

Treatment may involve:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiotherapy
  • Surgery

Steroids may also be given to decrease the swelling caused by the tumour.

Surgery for an astrocytoma:

  • Surgery is generally the first line of treatment for an astrocytoma. The aim of surgery is to remove the tumour.
  • Depending on the size, type and grade of the tumour, surgery may or may not be used alone as treatment.
  • Some tumours may not be treatable through surgery so the doctor will discuss other forms of treatment.

For more information about surgery, go to our surgery page.

Radiotherapy for an astrocytoma:

Radiotherapy may be used to destroy any remaining tumour that is not removed through surgery. For more information about radiotherapy, go to our radiotherapy page.

Chemotherapy for an astrocytoma:

Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the size of the tumour and to get rid of any cancer cells around the body. This may be used with surgery and radiotherapy. For more information about chemotherapy, go to our chemotherapy page.

Read more about cancer treatments and side effects.

Join CanTeen’s online community to chat with other young people about astrocytomas, their treatment… or anything really.