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A type of brain or spinal cord tumor, astrocytomas arise from cells called astrocytes. They are in the family of tumors called gliomas. 

Some low-grade astrocytomas grow slowly and are more easily removed. Higher-grade astrocytomas, such as glioblastoma multiforme,  tend to grow quickly and are difficult to treat.

Good communication with a trusted team of brain cancer experts is key to developing the best possible treatment plan.  

Astrocytoma symptoms

As with all brain tumors, astrocytoma symptoms vary depending on the tumor’s type, size and location and may include the following: 

  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Loss of balance
  • Personality changes
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness or sensory loss on one side of the body
  • Memory or language problems
  • Blind spots in field of vision

You should seek emergency care for any sudden and severe symptoms. Otherwise, talk to your primary care physician or pediatrician if you are worried about a possible brain tumor.

Types of astrocytomas

Some astrocytomas occur primarily in children, but most affect adults. Astrocytoma tumors are classified by grade, which is related to how aggressively  they grow:

  • Grade I astrocytomas: These are very slow-growing tumors. They tend to occur in children and young adults. They are frequently amenable to surgery, depending on the location, and often do not need any other treatment.
    • Juvenile pilocytic astrocytomas are the most common grade I astrocytomas. These childhood brain tumors are highly curable.
  • Low-grade astrocytomas (grade II): These are also called diffuse astrocytomas. These cancerous tumors infiltrate surrounding tissue, gradually progressing in size and grade over time. They are less aggressive than high-grade astrocytomas.
  • High-grade tumors: These cancerous tumors are treatable but tend to progress and recur over time. New insights are being discovered as experts learn more.
    • Anaplastic astrocytomas (grade III): These tumors grow and spread at a moderate rate, and are unable to be removed completely during surgery. 
    • Glioblastoma multiforme (grade IV): The most aggressive grade of astrocytoma, glioblastomas are unable to be completely removed. Glioblastomas receive regular nourishment via blood vessels, fueling their growth. 

How can I get help for astrocytoma?

The first step: Find a supportive team of experts that you and your family can trust. A lot is at stake. You want to ensure you have access to the best available care — from a team that respects your values and wishes. 

You will likely undergo some tests, such as an MRI and CT scans, to help determine a treatment course.  A biopsy may also be performed to remove a portion of the tumor for testing.

Care for astrocytomas at Rush

Our brain tumor team includes some of the region’s most experienced neurosurgeons, neuro-oncologists and radiation oncologists. They work together — and with you and your family — to develop a treatment plan that meets your needs.  

Your treatment plan may include one or more of the following treatments:

  • Steroids: If your symptoms are troubling, you may be given steroids or other drugs for relief. To avoid long-term side effects from these medications, we rapidly taper the amount of steroids patients take.
  • Surgery: Using the latest approaches, neurosurgeons can remove astrocytomas once considered inoperable. Advances in brain mapping — including intraoperative cortical stimulation mapping — prevent unnecessary damage.  
  • Radiation therapy: When treating a brain tumor, Rush’s radiation therapy team may use one of these methods — always careful to spare the hippocampus and other critical parts of the brain:
    • Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS): A nonsurgical radiation therapy, SRS is used to treat small, well-defined brain tumors. The TrueBeam STx system delivers a single high dose of radiation to the tumor, which reduces treatment time and minimizes damage to healthy surrounding tissue.
    • Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT): IGRT systems (TomoTherapy Hi-Art or Varian Trilogy) help Rush radiation therapists visualize a tumor and deliver radiation more precisely. IGRT can adjust for changes in the patient's position as well as tumor changes throughout treatment.
  • Drug therapy: Neuro-oncologists may recommend various cancer-fighting drugs:
    • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to speed up the death of cancer cells or stop them from duplicating.  Rush is involved in clinical trials testing new chemotherapy approaches for brain tumors.
    • Targeted, or directed, therapy: Using genomic tests, we can identify molecular mutations in tumors and recommend drugs that specifically attack those mutations.  Because these drugs are less likely to affect noncancerous cells, they tend to cause fewer side effects.
    • Immunotherapy: These drugs help the body’s immune system attack cancer cells or use antibodies against certain proteins on the cancer cell. Vaccines are in this category. These promising treatments can help some patients with astrocytomas.
  • Tumor treating (TT) fields: This newer therapy involves wearing a cap that delivers low-intensity electrical energy to the brain. This treatment inhibits microtubules (structural proteins) in cancer cells that help them divide and multiple.
  • Alternative and complementary therapies: Rush's Cancer Integrative Medicine Program offers massage, acupuncture, and other therapies to help relieve symptoms, including pain. 

Why choose Rush for astrocytoma care?

  • Quality care: Rush is one of only 11 U.S. hospitals to win the Outstanding Achievement Award — four times in a row — from the American College of Surgeons' Commission on Cancer. The award recognizes programs that excel in providing quality cancer care.
  • Nationally recognized programs: Rush's cancer neurology, and neurosurgery programs are consistently ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
  • Cutting-edge research: Many of our doctors are active medical researchers. As a result, they are on top of the latest glioblastoma discoveries and clinical trials.
  • Compassionate providers: Our team places an emphasis on helping patients maintain quality of life during and after treatment. For example, whenever possible, our radiation oncologists avoid applying radiation to critical parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which controls emotion and memory.

Departments and programs that treat this condition