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Around 50% of all brain tumors can be categorized as an astrocytoma—a type of brain cancer that develops in the tiny star-shaped cells known as astrocytes, which form the brain’s supportive tissues. Astrocytomas may also develop in the brain stem or spinal cord, although most occur in the front part of the brain (the cerebrum).

There are several types of astrocytomas, each with their own unique characteristics:

Pilocytic astrocytoma (grade 1)

Also referred to as juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma (JPA), pilocytic astrocytoma most often occurs in children and teens. It accounts for about 2% of all brain tumors and tends to grow very slowly.

Treatment typically involves surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy to destroy any cancer cells that remain. Radiation therapy to certain areas of the brain isn’t usually recommended for very young children.

Diffuse astrocytoma (grade 2)

Diffuse astrocytoma—also known simply as “low-grade” astrocytoma—grows slowly and rarely spreads beyond the central nervous system. It usually occurs in people between the ages of 20 and 50.

Surgery followed by a combination of chemotherapy or radiation therapy is the most common treatment approach. If left untreated, it’s possible for a diffuse astrocytoma to develop into a higher-grade tumor.

Anaplastic astrocytoma (grade 3)

Anaplastic astrocytoma is an uncommon, quickly spreading tumor that is difficult to surgically remove due to its root-like shape that grows deep into surrounding brain tissue. It makes up about 2% of all brain tumors. Anaplastic astrocytoma most often occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 50 and is more common in men than women.

Surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible followed by radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a clinical trial may be recommended to treat anaplastic astrocytoma. 

Glioblastoma (grade 4)

The most common and dangerous cancerous brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme (GMB) makes up more than 50% of all astrocytomas. This aggressive type of tumor is known to spread quickly and typically affects adults between the ages of 50 and 70. Glioblastoma most often develops toward the front of the brain, although it can also occur in the spinal cord, brain stem and other areas of the brain.

Part of what makes a glioblastoma challenging to treat is its composition of multiple cell types. The current standard of care is surgery to remove part of the tumor (complete removal is not possible) followed by radiation therapy, sometimes along with chemotherapy or a clinical trial. Supportive care to minimize symptoms and improve quality of life is another important aspect of glioblastoma treatment.

Pineal astrocytic tumor

A pineal astrocytic tumor begins in the pineal gland—the small organ in the brain that produces melatonin (the hormone that helps you sleep). These tumors can be any grade and usually affect people younger than 20. For unknown reasons, pineal astrocytic tumors are most common in Black people.

Pineal astrocytic tumors can spread to other areas through cerebrospinal fluid. Depending on the tumor’s grade, treatment may include a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, possibly along with immunotherapy or targeted therapy clinical trials.

Brain stem glioma

Often classified as a high-grade astrocytoma, a brain stem glioma is a rare cancer that develops in the brain stem, the bottom section of the brain that joins it to the spinal cord. These tumors are uncommon in adults and typically affect children between the ages of five and 10.

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapies are often relied upon to treat brain stem glioma, as surgical removal is not always possible.

Moffitt’s approach to astrocytomas and brain cancer 

Ranked in the top 1% of cancer centers nationwide, Moffitt Cancer Center offers a full scope of diagnostics, treatment and supportive care to people with brain cancer. The multispecialty team in our Neuro-Oncology Program has an unparalleled level of experience treating patients with all types of astrocytomas—including the most uncommon and complex tumors that other physicians may only see a handful of times in their career, if at all. This experience translates directly into more positive outcomes and improved quality of life for our patients; in fact, Moffitt’s cancer survival rates are as much as four times higher than the national averages.

Another factor that contributes to Moffitt’s positive outcomes is our highly personalized approach to treatment. A patient’s ideal course of care will depend on what type of astrocytoma is present—for example, a person with a diffuse astrocytoma will respond differently to a certain therapy than a patient with a brain stem glioma. That’s why our brain cancer specialists take the time to develop an individualized treatment plan for each patient based on the specifics of their diagnosis and their care preferences. Furthermore, Moffitt offers a diverse range of breakthrough treatments and spearheads several trailblazing brain cancer clinical trials and research initiatives.

To discuss brain cancer symptoms or treatment options with a Moffitt specialist—or to receive a second or third opinion regarding an astrocytoma diagnosis—call 1-888-663-3488 or fill out a new patient registration form online. We welcome patients with or without referrals.

References Astrocytoma
National Brain Tumor Society: Astrocytoma