Pediatric brain tumors like the one that killed Nick Cannon’s son are rare but serious in infants

Celebrity Nick Cannon’s 5-month-old son recently died of a brain tumor, a rare but serious condition in infants in the United States, according to a specialist in the field.

Only about 1,200 to 1,500 children a year, between childhood and age 4, are diagnosed with brain tumors, said Dr. Susan Chi, deputy director of pediatric neuro-oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Children brain tumors are very rare. And certainly, less frequent than what we see in the adult population,” Chi said.

While there are dozens of types of brain tumors and treatments for them vary, the survival rate for infants is lower the younger the child is, she said.

That’s because babies’ brains are undeveloped, so radiation to a child under 5 isn’t generally an option.

“Raising such a young brain really impacts their potential cognition,” Chi said. “That limits how much radiation, if any, can be given to these children and that affects their survival.”

Cannon, 41, announced the death of his son Zen on Tuesday.

“Over the weekend, I lost my youngest son to a condition called hydrocephalus, which is pretty much a midline malignant brain tumor — brain cancer,” Cannon said. Hydrocephalus is characterized by an abnormal increase in the amount of fluid in the brain.

Doctors discovered the malignant tumor and Zen underwent surgery to drain the fluid. His condition worsened around Thanksgiving, Cannon said.

Cannon did not specify what type of brain tumor his son had.

Danielle Leach, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit National Brain Tumor Society based in Newton, Massachusetts, lost her 5-year-old son, Mason, to a brain tumor in 2006. He lived with the tumor for 15 months, Leach said.

“Every time we as a community hear about another parent going through the tragedy of losing a child to a brain tumor, it recommands all of us in the community to do more to continue raising awareness,” Leach said.

Because of the location of tumors and the aggressive treatment needed, brain tumors can have lasting and life-changing physical and cognitive effects, she said.

It’s critical that parents provide “good information, resources and a strong relationship” with their healthcare team, no matter what stage of the battle their child is in, Leach said.

Chi said treatment for children with malignant tumors can yield results. She advises parents of children with brain tumors to seek specialist doctors, which will increase their children’s chances of positive outcomes.

Though rare for infants, brain tumors are the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children and young adults between childhood and 19 years of age, according to the National Brain Tumor Society.

In 2021, an estimated 4,630 children will develop a brain tumor. In the United States, according to the organization, more than 13,600 children are living with a malignant brain tumor.

The National Brain Tumor Society also said the standard of care for children with brain tumors is not well defined.

“There is an urgent need to invest in the fundamental understanding of why brain tumors occur in children. And how we can create healing and quality of life for those being treated,” Leach said. “Ultimately, we fundamentally hope that a doctor can walk into a room and say, ‘There’s something I can do.'”

Antonio Planas

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