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An ependymoma is a type of tumor that arises in ependymal cells, which make up the inner lining of the brain and spinal column. Tumors usually appear as small, benign masses that do not cause symptoms. Over the course of several months or years, however, they tend to grow and become malignant. Depending on the size and location of an ependymoma, an individual may experience chronic headaches, sensory loss, seizures, or a number of other physiological symptoms. Ependymomas are usually removed through very delicate surgical procedures, and chemotherapy or radiation treatments can be used to try to eradicate the cancer if it begins to spread to other parts of the body.
A person can develop an ependymoma at any age. In children, most tumors appear in the brain, while they usually emerge in the spinal column in adults. Doctors are unsure of the exact causes of ependymomas, but they believe that tumors arise due to random genetic mutations. There is no solid evidence that other medical conditions, inheritance, or environmental factors play a significant role in the development of ependymomas.
An ependymoma that develops in the brain may cause a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid, leading to swelling and pressure. A person might suffer from frequent headaches, vision problems, and fatigue. Depending on which part of the brain is affected, an individual may also experience coordination problems, speech difficulties, or seizures. Spinal ependymomas often cause chronic pain at the site of the tumor. If an ependymoma grows large enough to compress nearby nerves, a person may experience numbing or even paralysis in some parts of the body.
A neurologist can diagnose an ependymoma by analyzing physical symptoms and conducting diagnostic imaging tests. Magnetic resonance imaging and computerized tomography scans reveal the size, shape, and location of a tumor. Specialists may decide to take a biopsy of the affected tissue to confirm a diagnosis and determine the likelihood that the tumor will grow larger. Ependymomas are graded based on their stage of progression to malignancy. Grade one and two tumors are in their early stages and unlikely to grow quickly, while grade three tumors have likely already begun to spread to other parts of the body.
Once a diagnosis has been made, a team of specialists can decide on the best course of treatment. In most cases, they decide to conduct surgery to remove grade one and two tumors before they cause permanent problems. Surgeons cut into the skull or spinal column, carefully extract the mass, and suture the incision. When cancer has already spread or it is deemed too dangerous to operate on an ependymoma, specialists can administer a series of chemotherapy sessions or radiation treatments. Patients may also be given steroid medication to reduce intracranial pressure and relieve symptoms.