Skip to Content
Home > Wellness > Health Library > Childhood Craniopharyngioma Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
The PDQ childhood brain tumor treatment summaries are organized primarily according to the World Health Organization classification of nervous system tumors.[1,2] For a full description of the classification of nervous system tumors and a link to the corresponding treatment summary for each type of brain tumor, refer to the PDQ summary on Childhood Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors Treatment Overview.
Dramatic improvements in survival have been achieved for children and adolescents with cancer. Between 1975 and 2010, childhood cancer mortality decreased by more than 50%. Childhood and adolescent cancer survivors require close follow-up because cancer therapy side effects may persist or develop months or years after treatment. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for specific information about the incidence, type, and monitoring of late effects in childhood and adolescent cancer survivors.)
Primary brain tumors are a diverse group of diseases that together constitute the most common solid tumor of childhood. Brain tumors are classified according to histology, but tumor location and extent of spread are important factors that affect treatment and prognosis.
Craniopharyngiomas are uncommon pediatric brain tumors. They are believed to be congenital in origin, arising from ectodermal remnants, Rathke cleft, or other embryonal epithelium, and often occur in the suprasellar region with an intrasellar portion. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) imaging are used to diagnose craniopharyngiomas, but histologic confirmation is generally required before treatment. The treatment of newly diagnosed craniopharyngiomas may include a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and/or cyst drainage. The treatment of recurrent craniopharyngiomas depends on the initial treatment used. The 5-year and 10-year survival rates, regardless of treatment given, are higher than 90%.
Craniopharyngiomas are relatively uncommon, accounting for about 6% of all intracranial tumors in children.[4,5,6]
No predisposing factors have been identified.
Anatomy of the inside of the brain, showing the pineal and pituitary glands, optic nerve, ventricles (with cerebrospinal fluid shown in blue), and other parts of the brain. The tentorium separates the cerebrum from the cerebellum. The infratentorium (posterior fossa) is the region below the tentorium that contains the brain stem, cerebellum, and fourth ventricle. The supratentorium is the region above the tentorium and denotes the region that contains the cerebrum.
Craniopharyngiomas occur in the region of the pituitary gland, and endocrine function may be affected. Additionally, their closeness to the optic nerves and chiasm may result in vision problems. Some patients present with obstructive hydrocephalus caused by tumor growth within the third ventricle. Rarely, tumors may extend into the posterior fossa, and patients may present with headache, diplopia, ataxia, and hearing loss.
CT scans and MRI scans are often diagnostic for childhood craniopharyngiomas, with most tumors demonstrating intratumoral calcifications and a solid and cystic component. MRI of the spinal axis is not routinely performed.
Craniopharyngiomas without calcification may be confused with other tumor types, such as germinomas or hypothalamic/chiasmatic astrocytomas, and biopsy or resection is required to confirm the diagnosis.
Apart from imaging, patients often undergo endocrine testing and formal vision examination, including visual-field evaluation.
Regardless of the treatment modality, long-term event-free survival is approximately 85% in children,[5,6] with 5-year and 10-year overall survival rates higher than 90%.[9,10,11,12]
Craniopharyngiomas are histologically benign and often occur in the suprasellar region, with an intrasellar portion. They may be locally invasive and typically do not metastasize to remote brain locations; however, craniopharyngiomas may recur after initial therapy.
Craniopharyngiomas are classified as one of the following:
There is no generally applied staging system for childhood craniopharyngiomas. For treatment purposes, patients are grouped as having newly diagnosed or recurrent disease.
Treatment Options for Newly Diagnosed Childhood Craniopharyngioma
There is no consensus on the optimal treatment for newly diagnosed craniopharyngioma, in part because of the lack of prospective randomized trials that compare the different treatment options. Treatment is individualized on the basis of factors that include the following:
Treatment options for newly diagnosed childhood craniopharyngioma include the following:
Radical surgery with or without radiation therapy
It may be possible to remove all visible tumor and achieve long-term disease control because these tumors are histologically benign.[Level of evidence: 3iA]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiB]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiC] A 5-year progression-free survival (PFS) rate of about 65% has been reported. Gross-total resection is often technically challenging because the tumor is surrounded by vital structures, including the optic nerves and chiasm, the carotid artery and its branches, the hypothalamus, and the third cranial nerve. These structures may limit the ability to remove the entire tumor.
Many surgical approaches have been described, and the choice is determined by tumor size, location, and extension. Radical surgical approaches include the following:
Complications of radical surgery include the following:
If the surgeon indicates that the tumor was not completely removed or if postoperative imaging reveals residual craniopharyngioma, radiation therapy may be recommended to prevent early progression.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]
Periodic surveillance using magnetic resonance imaging is performed for several years after radical surgery because of the possibility of tumor recurrence.
Subtotal resection with radiation therapy
The goal of limited surgery is to establish a diagnosis, drain any cysts, and decompress the optic nerves. No attempt is made to remove tumor from the pituitary stalk or hypothalamus in an effort to minimize the late effects associated with radical surgery.
The surgical procedure is often followed by radiation therapy, with a 5-year PFS rate of about 70% to 90%[4,12]; [Level of evidence: 3iDiii] and 10-year overall survival rates higher than 90%.[Level of evidence: 3iiA]; [Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii] Conventional radiation therapy is fractionated external-beam radiation, with a recommended dose of 54 Gy to 55 Gy in 1.8-Gy fractions. Transient cyst enlargement may be noted soon after radiation therapy but generally resolves without further intervention.[Level of evidence: 3iDiv]
A systematic review of 109 reports that described extent of resection found that subtotal resection plus radiation therapy was associated with rates of tumor control similar to those for gross-total resection. It was also reported that both approaches were associated with higher PFS rates than was subtotal resection alone.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]
Surgical complications with a subtotal resection are less likely than with radical surgery. Complications of radiation therapy include the following:
Newer radiation technologies such as intensity-modulated proton therapy may reduce scatter during whole-brain and whole-body irradiation and result in the sparing of normal tissues. When these highly conformal radiation treatments are employed, interim imaging is commonly performed to detect changes in cyst volume, with treatment plans modified as appropriate.[20,21,22] It is unknown whether such technologies result in reduced late effects from radiation.[13,21,22,23]
Tumor progression remains a concern, and it is usually not possible to repeat the radiation dose. In selected cases, stereotactic radiation therapy can be delivered as a single large dose of radiation to a small field.[Level of evidence: 3iC] Proximity of the craniopharyngioma to vital structures, particularly the optic nerves, limits this to small tumors within the sella.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]
Primary cyst drainage with or without radiation therapy
For large cystic craniopharyngiomas, particularly in children younger than 3 years and in those with recurrent cystic tumor after initial surgery, stereotactic or open implantation of an intracystic catheter with a subcutaneous reservoir may be a valuable alternative treatment option. Benefits include temporary relief of fluid pressure by serial drainage, and in some cases, for intracystic instillation of sclerosing agents as a means to postpone or obviate radiation treatment. This procedure may also allow the surgeon to use a two-staged approach: first draining the cyst via the implanted catheter, to relieve pressure and complicating symptoms; and then later resecting the tumor or employing radiation therapy.
Treatment Options for Recurrent Childhood Craniopharyngioma
Recurrence of craniopharyngioma occurs in approximately 35% of patients regardless of primary therapy.
Treatment options for recurrent childhood craniopharyngioma include the following:
The management of recurrent craniopharyngioma is determined largely by previous therapy. Repeat attempts at gross-total resections are difficult, and long-term disease control is less often achieved.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDi] Complications are more frequent than with initial surgery.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDi] If not previously employed, external-beam radiation therapy is an option, to include consideration of radiosurgery in selected circumstances.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]
Cystic recurrences may be treated with intracavitary instillation of varying agents via stereotactic delivery or placement of an Ommaya catheter. These agents have included radioactive P-32 or other radioactive compounds,[6,7]; [Level of evidence: 2A], bleomycin,; [Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii] or interferon-alpha.; [Level of evidence: 3iiiB] These strategies have been found to be useful in certain cases, and a low risk of complications has been reported. However, none of these approaches have shown efficacy against solid portions of the tumor.
Although systemic therapy is generally not utilized, a small series has shown that the use of subcutaneous pegylated interferon alpha-2b to manage cystic recurrences can result in durable responses.[Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]
Treatment Options Under Clinical Evaluation for Recurrent Childhood Craniopharyngioma
The following is an example of a national and/or institutional clinical trial that is currently being conducted. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI website.
Quality-of-life issues are important in this group of patients and are difficult to generalize because of the various treatment modalities.
Late effects of treatment for childhood craniopharyngioma include the following:
Refer to the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for specific information about the incidence, type, and monitoring of late effects in childhood and adolescent cancer survivors.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Newly Diagnosed Childhood Craniopharyngioma Treatment
Added text to state that when these highly conformal radiation treatments are employed, interim imaging is commonly performed to detect changes in cyst volume, with treatment plans modified as appropriate (cited Winkfield et al. and Bishop et al. as references 20 and 22, respectively).
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of childhood craniopharyngioma. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Childhood Craniopharyngioma Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Pediatric Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Childhood Craniopharyngioma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/brain/hp/child-cranio-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.
Write to us
For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:
Search the NCI Web site
The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.
There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.
The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2015-08-05
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.