General Information About Childhood Ependymoma
Key Points for This Section
- Childhood ependymoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.
- There are different types of ependymomas.
- The part of the brain that is affected depends on where the ependymoma forms.
- The cause of most childhood brain tumors is unknown.
- The signs and symptoms of childhood ependymoma depend on the child’s age and where the tumor is found.
- Tests that examine the brain and spinal cord are used to detect (find) childhood ependymoma.
- Childhood ependymoma is diagnosed and removed in surgery.
- Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The brain controls vital functions such as memory and learning, emotion, and the senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch). The spinal cord is made up of bundles of nerve fibers that connect the brain with nerves in most parts of the body.
This summary is about the treatment of primary brain tumors (tumors that begin in the brain). Treatment of metastatic brain tumors, which are tumors that begin in other parts of the body and spread to the brain, is not discussed in this summary.
There are many different types of brain tumors. Brain tumors can occur in both children and adults. However, treatment for children is different than treatment for adults. See the following PDQ summaries for more information:
The World Health Organization (WHO) groups ependymal tumors into four main subtypes:
- Subependymoma (WHO Grade I).
- Myxopapillary ependymoma (WHO Grade I).
- Ependymoma (WHO Grade II)
- Anaplastic ependymoma (WHO Grade III).
The grade of a tumor describes how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread. Low-grade (Grade I) cancer cells look more like normal cells and tend to grow and spread more slowly than high-grade (Grade III) cancer cells.
Once an ependymoma forms, areas of the brain that may be affected include:
- Cerebrum: The largest part of the brain, at the top of the head. The cerebrum controls thinking, learning, problem-solving, speech, emotions, reading, writing, and voluntary movement.
- Cerebellum: The lower, back part of the brain (near the middle of the back of the head). The cerebellum controls movement, balance, and posture.
- Brain stem: The part that connects the brain to the spinal cord, in the lowest part of the brain (just above the back of the neck). The brain stem controls breathing, heart rate, and the nerves and muscles used in seeing, hearing, walking, talking, and eating.
- Spinal cord: The column of nerve tissue that runs from the brain stem down the center of the back. It is covered by three thin layers of tissue called membranes. The spinal cord and membranes are surrounded by the vertebrae (back bones). Spinal cord nerves carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body, such as a signal from the brain to cause muscles to move or from the skin to the brain for the sense of touch.
- Frequent headaches.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Pain or stiffness in the neck.
- Loss of balance or trouble walking.
- Weakness in the legs.
- Blurry vision.
- Back pain.
- A change in bowel function.
- Trouble urinating.
- Confusion or irritability.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Neurological exam : A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) with gadolinium : A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the brain and spinal cord. A substance called gadolinium is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The gadolinium collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
- Lumbar puncture : A procedure used to collect cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from the spinal column to check for cancer cells. This is done by placing a needle into the spinal column. This procedure is also called an LP or spinal tap.
If the diagnostic tests show there may be a brain tumor, a biopsy is done by removing part of the skull and using a needle to remove a sample of the brain tissue. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found, the doctor will remove as much tumor as safely possible during the same surgery.
The following test may be done on the tissue that was removed:
- Immunohistochemistry : A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between brain stem glioma and other brain tumors.
An MRI is often done after the tumor is removed to find out whether any tumor remains.
- Where the tumor has formed in the central nervous system (CNS).
- Whether there are certain changes in the genes or chromosomes.
- Whether any cancer cells remain after surgery to remove the tumor.
- The type of ependymoma.
- The age of the child when the tumor is diagnosed.
- Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the brain or spinal cord.
- Whether the tumor has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).