What is an astrocytoma?
About 1/3 of brain tumours diagnosed in the UK are astrocytomas. They affect adults and children.
If you or someone you know has just been diagnosed with a brain tumour, you may be in a state of shock. This is a natural way to feel. Our Support and Information team can help answer any questions you may have or provide a listening ear if you need one.
What is an astrocytoma?
Astrocytoma (pronounced ass-tro-sigh-toe-ma) is the most common type of primary brain tumour and is part of a larger group of brain tumours called gliomas.
They grow from a type of cell in the brain called an astrocyte. These cells support and protect the nerves in the brain (neurons) and help to pass messages between them. As these cells are found throughout the brain, astrocytomas can occur in many different areas of the brain.
There are 4 main types:
- slow growing, sometimes very slow growing
- relatively contained (have well-defined edges), which can make it easier to remove completely
- unlikely to spread to other parts of the brain
- unlikely to return after being surgically removed.
They’re most often found in children and young adults under the age of 20. They’re very rare in adults over 50 years. They’re equally common in males and females.
- slow growing
- diffuse (don’t have well-defined edges), which can make it more difficult to remove completely
- can sometimes return following treatment (known as a recurrence), as a grade 3 tumour.
They occur most often in adults between the ages of 20 and 45. They’re more common in males than females.
Anaplastic means the cells divide rapidly and don’t look like normal cells in structure or function.
- fast growing
- often referred to as malignant or cancerous
- often come back following treatment (known as a recurrence) in a more advanced form.
They’re more common in adults between the ages of 30 and 70 and are more common in males.
Grade 4 astrocytomas are usually called glioblastoma. You may hear them called glioblastoma multiforme, or GBM for short.
There are other brain tumours, which don’t have astrocytoma in their name, that are still actually astrocytomas because they grow from astrocytes. For example, some types of diffuse midline glioma (previously called DIPGs).
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What are the symptoms of an astrocytoma?
As astrocytomas grow from cells that are vital in processing information in the brain, they can disrupt the function of whichever area of the brain they are growing in.
Pilocytic astrocytomas tend to grow in the cerebellum, which controls balance. They can also occur in the optic pathways, which are involved in sight.
How are astrocytomas treated?
The treatment for a brain tumour depends on its grade, size and location.
Generally the first treatment for astrocytomas is neurosurgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible. This may be followed by radiotherapy and sometimes chemotherapy.
This may differ in children, who may be given chemotherapy rather than surgery or radiotherapy, and in people with pilocytic astrocytomas, who may be put on active monitoring (sometimes called watch and wait) before given surgery.
What causes astrocytomas?
As with most brain tumours, the answer is that we just don’t know yet, although we do understand some of the risk factors involved.
It’s important to know that there is nothing you could have done, or avoided doing, that would have caused you or somebody you know to develop a brain tumour.
There are some genetic conditions that make people more likely to develop brain tumours, for example, neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). This is a genetic condition you are born with, that causes tumours to grow along the nerves and in the brain. Pilocytic astrocytomas occur in around 10% of people who have NF1.
How long can I live with an astrocytoma?
This is impossible to answer for certain. While averages can be given, everybody is different – it will depend on so many factors – not only your tumour grade, size and location, but also your general health, your individual body chemistry, and how you respond to treatment.
Our fact sheet gives you an overview of astrocytomas in adults, how they are treated and answers some of the questions you may have about this type of tumour.
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Three years ago, Alfie had a grade 1 pilocytic astrocytoma completely removed. Now he shares his experiences with fatigue and how he manages day to day.
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