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Craniopharyngiomas

A craniopharyngioma is a benign tumor (not cancer) that occurs at the base of the brain, usually above the pituitary gland.

The exact cause of these tumors is unknown.

Craniopharyngiomas are most commonly diagnosed in children younger than 15 and adults over 50. There is no difference in incidence by gender or race.

MSK patient Martina Morris
Martina's Story
Discover how Martina bounced back after a transnasal procedure to have a pituitary tumor removed at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
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Craniopharyngioma Symptoms

A craniopharyngioma may cause symptoms similar to those of pituitary adenomas. They can cause symptoms by:

  • increasing pressure on the brain
  • disrupting hormone production by the pituitary gland
  • putting pressure on or causing damage to the optic nerves

Increased pressure on the brain can cause:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting, especially in the morning

Hormone imbalances caused by pressure on the pituitary gland can lead to excessive thirst and urination, among a range of other symptoms.

When the optic nerves are damaged by the tumor, vision problems develop.

Craniopharyngioma Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects a craniopharyngioma, you may need to have an MRI scan of the brain, where the pituitary gland is located, to determine the exact size and location of the tumor.

We also perform blood tests to evaluate all levels of pituitary hormones.

Craniopharyngioma Treatment

Surgery is the most common treatment for craniopharyngiomas.

Memorial Sloan Kettering surgeons are experienced in using a minimally invasive technique called transsphenoidal surgery to remove pituitary tumors. The approach allows our surgeons to bypass brain tissue, operating instead through an incision inside the nasal passage. The risk for neurologic complications with this technique is very low, and the surgery leaves no visible scar.

Surgeon performs surgery to remove a tumor
Transsphenoidal Surgery for Pituitary Tumors
The main treatment for most pituitary tumor patients is a minimally invasive operation called transsphenoidal surgery. Learn more about our expertise.
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In the rare case that a tumor is too large to be removed using transsphenoidal surgery, our surgeons may recommend a craniotomy, a procedure in which the tumor is removed through an incision made in the front of the skull.

Sometimes large tumors can be difficult to cure with surgery alone and may require additional therapy, such as radiation therapy or certain medications.

Radiation Therapy for Craniopharyngioma

Radiation therapy can be used in several ways for a craniopharyngioma. It may be recommended as additional therapy after surgery to prevent regrowth of the tumor. Radiation may also be used as the sole treatment if the tumor cannot be removed surgically, or if the tumor regrows after surgery.

The radiation therapy team at MSK is highly experienced in caring for people with craniopharyngiomas, and works closely with the other members of your care team. They have access to every form of modern radiation therapy available and will customize a treatment plan so precise that it factors in the size and shape of your tumor to the millimeter. 

Their goal is to not only eliminate the tumor cells but to prevent the side effects of treatment by keeping the healthy cells around the tumor safe.

We offer several radiation therapy options for people with a craniopharyngioma. Learn more about our approach to radiation therapy for pituitary tumors.