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Pediatric brain cancer is rare. A doctor explains why some kids are more vulnerable than others.

Wendy Ruderman, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

The odds that a doctor will diagnose your child with pediatric cancer are slim, and the chances of a brain cancer diagnosis are even smaller.

Each year, roughly 4,000 kids — out of about 73 million in the United States — will be diagnosed with a brain tumor. Of those, roughly half will have one of several types of a malignant, aggressive tumor. For instance, medulloblastoma is among the most common type of malignant brain tumor in children: About 500 new cases are diagnosed each year. That's 0.0007% of all children nationwide, or one in almost 150,000.

Pediatric brain cancer is so rare that doctors and researchers are still learning why it occurs. The Inquirer spoke with Garrett Brodeur, a pediatrician and director of the Cancer Predisposition Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, about what causes cancers in kids, and why some may be more vulnerable. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do kids get brain cancer?

We don't know for sure. I would say we have a good suspicion that it has to do with mistakes made as cells are multiplying during development, either prenatally or postnatally. When a person is conceived, they're one cell — one fertilized egg. And when they're born, they're 10 trillion cells.

Each time one cell becomes two, it has to copy 6 billion base pairs of DNA exactly. It's a very complicated process.

 

Do cellular 'mistakes' always lead to cancer?

When mistakes happen, most of the time, those cells end up dying. They end up not being able to survive — either because the mistakes may cause the cells to die, or there are other protective mechanisms that recognize that something's wrong and internally activate a self-destruct mechanism, or cellular suicide.

But it doesn't always happen. A cell gets some growth advantage, and it doesn't die. And that's probably what causes most childhood cancers of the brain or elsewhere.

Are some kids more vulnerable?

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