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If you’ve been diagnosed with a spinal ependymoma, you are probably wondering what your road to recovery looks like. While many spinal ependymomas are effectively treated with surgery, it can still be a stressful and confusing process. To resolve any doubts you may have about your treatment, it’s helpful to research your condition and discuss it with your surgeon. The following is an overview of spinal ependymoma surgery that you can use to form questions for your surgeon and feel more at ease about what lies ahead.

What Is a Spinal Ependymoma?

A spinal ependymoma is a tumor of the ependyma, which is a common type of tissue in the nervous system. Ependymal cells are found both in the brain and in the spinal cord, but among adults, ependymomas are more common in the spine. Spinal ependymomas are almost always benign and grow very slowly.

When a tumor grows from the spinal ependyma, it can disrupt the function of nearby cells and cause a range of symptoms. While spinal ependymoma symptoms can vary widely depending on the tumor’s size and location, patients often report a progressive gnawing back pain, classically at night, and neurological symptoms including numbness, tingling, weakness and unsteadiness of gait.  Sometimes there are issues with bladder and/or bowel control. Your doctor will perform tests to characterize your spinal ependymoma and better understand how to treat it.

What to Expect Before Surgery

After you and your doctor determine that spinal ependymoma surgery is the best course of action, it’s important to learn as much as you can about your treatment and to prepare accordingly. First, don’t hesitate to ask your surgeon as many questions as you want about your spinal ependymoma surgery. You should ask him or her how spinal ependymoma surgery will affect your lifestyle, how likely you are to need more treatment in the future or what side effects there may be.

Also be sure to discuss your spinal ependymoma surgery with your insurance company. It’s important to understand the extent of your financial obligations before the operation. For this reason, you may find it beneficial to seek out a surgeon with an insurance specialist on his or her staff who will be able to help you navigate the often complex process of figuring out your insurance coverage.

Finally, a crucial part of preparing for spinal ependymoma surgery is to make arrangements for the period of time immediately following the surgery. You will likely need to miss some time at work, and you might require someone to attend to you at home for a brief span. It’s advisable to discuss with your surgeon exactly how your spinal ependymoma surgery will affect your mobility and independence, and then make the appropriate arrangements with your employer and with friends or family for the early stages of your recovery.

What to Expect During Surgery

The objective during spinal ependymoma surgery is to remove, or resect, the entire tumor. In fact, the most important factor influencing treatment success is the extent of tumor resection. Patients who have had their tumor completely removed have the lowest chance of recurrence and the highest chance of survival. The likelihood of complete tumor removal depends mostly on the tumor’s size, location, and the ability at surgery to physically separate the tumor from nerves. Since these tumors are slow growing, a small amount of residual tumor may be left if your surgeon feels it is not safe to remove it.

Talk with your surgeon to understand your condition and how he or she intends to approach it.

During the spinal ependymoma surgery itself, your surgeon will make a incision in your back corresponding to the location of the tumor. Then, he or she will remove bone to access the portion of the spinal canal that contains the tumor.  Then the surgeon will remove it while using microscopes to visualize the area and ensure precision. You will be safely under anesthesia during the procedure. Most patients spend one or two days in the hospital before discharge, and are walking with assistance by day three or four.

What to Expect After Surgery

Your recovery from spinal ependymoma surgery will depend on the specifics of your condition. For this reason, it’s important to carefully follow your surgeon’s recommendation. Surgery for ependymomas that are within the spinal cord require actually opening up the spinal cord.  This leads to a variable degree of leg numbness after surgery.  Nevertheless, you will likely be walking a day or two post-operation, and you can expect to return to work shortly after that, depending on the demands of your job.

Your surgeon may prescribe radiation treatment for the weeks that follow the operation. While radiation can be useful in a wide range of spinal ependymoma treatment regimens, it is more common among patients whose tumor was only partially removed, or among those with more aggressive tumors.

Final Thoughts

Spinal ependymoma surgery can be a risky operation and can have side effects, but if your tumor if completely removed at surgery it usually doesn’t come back. Remember to do as much research about your condition as you can, and discuss your treatment at length with your surgeon. By gathering information, making the proper arrangements before the operation and closely following your surgeon’s advice, you can increase your chances of a full recovery.

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