Is Your Child’s Headache Actually a Brain Tumor?

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You assume it’s just a headache and that it’ll go away on its own. But what if it doesn’t? What if your child’s headache is a symptom of a life-threatening problem like brain cancer?

In CNN’s “Empowered Patient” column this week, senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen reports on one family’s experience with this rare but terrifying outcome.

When John Tonich, 16, began having short, sharp headaches one day, his parents thought the boy had suffered a concussion during a recent wrestling match. Two days later, the headaches still hadn’t subsided, so John’s parents took him to their family doctor, who diagnosed him dehydration — that made sense because the young wrestler had been drinking less to drop into a lower weight class. The headaches gave way to nausea later in the week, and the doctor suggested John had probably caught a flu bug. (More on TIME.com: A Way to Keep Brain Tumors from Coming Back?)

But when John started suffering from dizziness at school a day later, his mother, Debbie, took him straight to the emergency room for a CT scan and MRI. There, a doctor informed the family that John had the “worst possible cancer in the worst possible place and would have a year to live, or two at the most,” John’s father, Joe, told CNN.

The family immediately sought care at the Cleveland Clinic, where a surgeon removed the entire tumor, and where John is now enrolled in a clinical trial, receiving radiation and chemotherapy. John’s tumor, known as a medulloblastoma, is diagnosed in about 1,000 people every year, and his doctor noted that 50% to 60% of children with the same type of tumor are still alive five years after diagnosis. (More on TIME.com: Study: Cell Phones Cause Changes in Brain Activity)

Though John’s situation is extremely rare, it’s hard not to fear the worst when you or your child has a headache that won’t quit. The important thing to remember is that the vast majority of people who have headaches don’t have brain tumors: 99% of the time, it’s stress or a migraine or sinusitis, Cohen reports. Only 1 in every 4,000 children who have headaches will have a brain tumor, Dr. Santiago Medina, co-director of the department of radiology’s division of neuroradiology at Miami Children’s Hospital, told CNN. (More on TIME.com: Suffer from Migraines? FDA Says Try Botox Injections)

There’s no easy to way to know whether your headache could be a symptom of something more serious, but doctors do have some red flags. Cohen reports that these include: headaches that are unusual for you or that come on first thing in the morning; headaches that are accompanied by other symptoms like nausea or dizziness; headaches that get worse over time; or the gut feeling that something is seriously wrong.

Still, the red flags are not a complete checklist for spotting brain cancer. Cohen reports:

First, 50%-60% of all people with brain tumors don’t have headaches at all, says [Dr. Gene] Barnett, [director of the Brain Tumor and Neuro-Oncology Center, who treats adults at the Cleveland Clinic]. Second, your headaches could fall into all these red flag categories and you could not have cancer. Third, your headaches could fall into none of these categories and you could still have a brain tumor.

To read CNN’s entire “Empowered Patient” column, click here. To learn more about brain tumors, visit the American Brain Tumor Association or the National Brain Tumor Society.

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