Ependymoma - Childhood: Diagnosis

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 11/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. To see other pages, use the menu.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, a brain tumor. They also do tests to learn if a tumor has spread to another part of the body from where it started. If this happens, it is called metastasis. For example, imaging tests can show if the tumor has spread. Imaging tests show pictures of the inside of the body. Doctors may also do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

For most tumor types, a biopsy is the only sure way for the doctor to know whether an area of the body has a tumor. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

This list describes options for diagnosing ependymoma, and not all tests listed will be used for every child. Your child’s doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of tumor suspected

  • Your child’s signs and symptoms

  • Your child’s age and medical condition

  • The results of earlier medical tests

In addition to a physical examination, the following tests may be used to diagnose ependymoma:

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan creates a 3-dimensional picture of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. Sometimes, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye is usually injected into a patient’s vein.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body. MRI can also be used to measure the tumor’s size. A contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye is usually injected into a patient’s vein. A spinal MRI may be used to find out if the tumor has spread to the spine.

  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. Other tests can suggest that a tumor is present, but only a biopsy can make a definite diagnosis. A pathologist then analyzes the sample(s). A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease. For ependymoma, surgery is needed to get a sample of tissue (see Treatment Options).

  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A lumbar puncture is a procedure in which a doctor uses a needle to take a sample of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) to look for tumor cells. CSF is the fluid that flows around the brain and the spinal cord. Doctors generally give an anesthetic to numb the lower back before the procedure. This procedure is generally done after ependymoma is diagnosed and the tumor is removed.

After diagnostic tests are done, your child’s doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is ependymoma, these results also help the doctor describe the tumor; this is called staging and grading.

The next section in this guide is Stages and Grades. It explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.