Medically reviewed on August 2, 2018
Astrocytoma is a type of cancer that can form in the brain or spinal cord. Astrocytoma begins in cells called astrocytes that support nerve cells.
Astrocytoma signs and symptoms depend on the location of your tumor. Astrocytomas that occur in the brain can cause seizures, headaches and nausea. Astrocytomas that occur in the spinal cord can cause weakness and disability in the area affected by the growing tumor.
Astrocytoma can be a slow-growing tumor, or it can be an aggressive cancer that grows quickly. The aggressiveness (grade) of your astrocytoma determines your prognosis and treatment options.
Tests and procedures used to diagnose astrocytoma include:
- Neurological exam. During a neurological exam, your doctor will ask you about your signs and symptoms. He or she may check your vision, hearing, balance, coordination, strength and reflexes. Problems in one or more of these areas may provide clues about the part of your brain that could be affected by a brain tumor.
Imaging tests. Imaging tests can help your doctor determine the location and size of your brain tumor. MRI is often used to diagnose brain tumors, and it may be used along with specialized MRI imaging, such as functional MRI, perfusion MRI and magnetic resonance spectroscopy.
Other imaging tests may include CT and positron emission tomography (PET).
Removing a sample of tissue for testing (biopsy). A biopsy can be done with a needle before surgery or during surgery to remove your astrocytoma, depending on your particular situation and the location of your tumor. The sample of suspicious tissue is analyzed in a laboratory to determine the types of cells and their level of aggressiveness.
Specialized tests of the tumor cells can tell your doctor the types of mutations the cells have acquired. This gives your doctor clues about your prognosis and may guide your treatment options.
Astrocytoma treatments include:
Surgery to remove the astrocytoma. Your brain surgeon (neursurgeon) will work to remove as much of the astrocytoma as possible. The goal is to remove all of the cancer, but sometimes the astrocytoma is located near sensitive brain tissue that makes that too risky. Even removing some of the cancer may reduce your signs and symptoms.
For some people, surgery may be the only treatment needed. For others, additional treatments may be recommended to kill any cancer cells that might remain and reduce the risk that the cancer will return.
Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays or protons, to kill cancer cells. During radiation therapy, you lie on a table while a machine moves around you, directing beams to precise points in your brain.
Radiation therapy might be recommended after surgery if your cancer wasn't removed completely or if there's an increased risk your cancer will return. Radiation is often combined with chemotherapy for aggressive cancers. For people who can't undergo surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be used as a primary treatment.
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be taken in pill form or through a vein in your arm. In certain situations, a circular wafer of chemotherapy medicine can be placed in your brain after surgery where it slowly dissolves and releases the medication.
Chemotherapy is often used after surgery to kill any cancer cells that might remain. It can be combined with radiation therapy for aggressive cancers.
- Clinical trials. Clinical trials are studies of new treatments. These studies give you a chance to try the latest treatment options, but the risk of side effects may not be known. Ask your doctor whether you might be eligible to participate in a clinical trial.
- Supportive (palliative) care. Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. Palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care. Palliative care can be used while undergoing other aggressive treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy.