Spinal Cancer

What Is Spinal Cord Cancer? Symptoms Spinal Cancer

Spinal cord tumours are the most common type of cancer in the spine. They can occur anywhere in the spine and do not have to start at the base. Spinal cancer is a disease that affects the spinal cord. The spine is made up of bones and vertebrae that support the body. Spinal tumours are tumours that grow in or around the spinal cord. Any type of tumour may occur in the spine, including primary and secondary tumours. Primary tumours: most of these tumours are benign and slow-growing. This type of tumour accounts for 90% of all primary tumours.

Astrocytoma (within the spinal cord, a tumour of the supporting cells),

meningioma (a tumour of the tissue around the spinal cord),

schwannoma (a tumour involving the cells that surround the nerve fibres),

ependymoma (a tumour of the cells that line inside the brain cavities),

lipoma (a tumour of fat cells), and

metastasis tumours (cancer cells coming from different parts of your body)

are all types of primary tumours.

Secondary tumours or metastasis are cancer cells coming from other areas of your body, such as prostate, lung, or breast cancers; leukaemia; lymphoma; or myeloma. Secondary tumours or metastases occur when cancer cells come from another part of your body to form a secondary tumour in your spine. Metastatic tumours can spread to other parts of your body and cause life-threatening illness if they invade vital structures such as blood vessels or nerves

Spinal cord cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the bones and/or soft tissue of the spine and upper or lower extremities. If you have spinal cord cancer, you may have symptoms that include loss of feeling in your legs or arms, weakness, numbness, tingling or pain. You may also experience pain in your back, neck or head.

The most common type of spinal cord tumour is an astrocytoma, which is a tumour of the supporting cells inside the spinal cord. It can cause problems with walking and swallowing if it presses on an important nerve or blood vessel.

The vast majority of cancers that occur in the spine are metastatic. Metastasis is a cancer cell spreading from one part of the body to another.

The most common secondary spinal tumours are prostate, lung, and breast cancers; leukaemia; lymphoma; myeloma; and all types of cancer originating in other parts of your body.


Symptoms Spinal Cancer

The Symptoms of spinal cord tumours differ based on the tumour location and its type. Some symptoms may come on gradually. Other times, they might also appear out of nowhere and progress swiftly. These symptoms can include, but this list is not exhaustive:

Pain when walking or standing

Difficulty walking

Weakness or numbness in the legs

Loss of bladder control or bowel control

Difficulties with bowel movements (incontinence)

Back and/or neck pain

Changes in sexual function


Loss of feeling in parts of the body


Muscle weakness

Spinal cord cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the tissue that protects and supports the spinal cord. It is more common in women than men, and it tends to affect people between the ages of 20 and 50.

Pain, weakness, or numbness in one arm or leg might occur when a tumour grows in this location. This might be due to the tumour’s strain on nerves or discomfort or irritation from other tumours nearby.

Spinal cord tumours are hard to detect because they do not cause symptoms and only rarely cause pain. Some spinal cord tumours grow very slowly, while others grow quickly and aggressively.

Fortunately, if you notice any changes in your back or neck that are troubling you and that do not get better with rest or treatment, it is important to see your healthcare provider right away so that you can have them examined and possibly treated.

Known risk factors for developing spinal cord cancer include:

History of cancer: Breast, lung, and prostate cancers are more prone to spread to the spinal cord as well.

Compromised immune system: According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, spinal cord lymphomas—cancers that affect a type of immune cell—are more common in people with compromised immune systems.4

Hereditary disorders: Von Hippel-Lindau disease and neurofibromatosis (NF2) are inherited conditions that may be associated with spinal cord tumors.

Injury or trauma: Trauma or injury can cause damage to nerve cells in your body that may lead to an infection—this is called nerve root infection or nerve root impingement syndrome (NRS). NRS can cause pain and numbness in your legs, arms, and Joints.

Genetic mutations: Genetic mutations can cause tumors to form in different areas of the body or at different times in life. The genes involved can be inherited from parents or inherited from an egg or sperm cell at conception (called an autosomal dominant disorder). Genetic mutations can also be acquired throughout life (called an autosomal recessive disorder). Genetic mutations may be responsible for some types of Cancer.


  • Tumours originate in the vertebrae and travel along nerve fibres to reach the spinal cord.
  • Tumours start in connective tissue and spread through nearby nerves to reach the spinal cord.
  • Tumours that begin in muscle tissue and spread through nearby nerves to reach the spinal cord.
  • Tumours that begin in fat cells, travel through surrounding tissues and reach the spinal cord.
  • Tumours that start in bone, spread through nearby tissues and reach the spinal cord.


The diagnosis of spinal cord cancer is made by your doctor provided based on the following:

Medical history. Your healthcare provider will ask questions about any back pain or neurological symptoms you are experiencing.

Diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered to enable your healthcare provider to see the spinal cord and surrounding areas in detail to detect tumours. One or more of these tests will be required for an accurate diagnosis.

If a tumour is detected on any imaging scans, a biopsy will be required to determine if the tumour is benign or malignant (cancerous). Spine tumour biopsies are often performed using a minimally invasive procedure. Healthcare providers use a CT scan to guide the placement of a thin needle to extract a sample of the tumour.

Treatment options depend upon several factors including location, size, stage (degree of growth), and age at diagnosis.

Diagnosis includes any of the one or combination of them which are surgery; radiation therapy; chemotherapy; and/or targeted drug therapies (e.g., tyrosine kinase inhibitors). In certain serious cases when surgery is not appropriate treatment due to the location or size of the tumour, radiation therapy may be used.

The first step in the diagnosis of spinal cord cancer is to examine the extent to it has spread. If your spinal cord has been affected and you are experiencing symptoms, your healthcare provider will ask questions about any back pain and/or neurological symptoms you are experiencing.

Diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered to enable your healthcare provider to see the spinal cord and surrounding areas in detail to detect tumours. One or more of these tests will be required for an accurate diagnosis.

If you have symptoms that suggest spine cancer, your healthcare provider may recommend that you get a CT scan of the lower back and/or abdomen. This test can help diagnose tumours that are too small for a radiologist to see on plain film x-rays. In some cases, imaging tests like MRI may also be used to help locate tumours if they cannot be seen on plain film x-rays or CT scans.

If you have no symptoms but need an imaging study for another reason (for example blood clotting disorders, kidney stones), then your healthcare provider may order an x-ray instead of an MRI exam.

The treatment of spinal cord cancer depends on the type and spread of the tumour. You may be treated with surgery, radiation therapy (radiotherapy), chemotherapy, or a combination of these treatments. Surgery removes the diseased part of your spine (the tumour) and sometimes any associated tumours. Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells in the body. In Chemotherapy drugs are used to kill cancer cells or destroy them from growing. Chemotherapy can be used alone or with another treatment option.

Surgical Removal

A surgical removal is an option for early-stage tumours. The aim of surgery is to take off as much of the tumour as possible without damaging nearby organs or nerves. This can be accomplished by removing part or all of the tumour along with bone and muscle tissue around it. If this does not remove all of the tumours, additional surgeries may be necessary to remove more tissue from around the remaining tumour. In some cases, your surgeon may opt to leave a portion of the tumour behind because it may contain cancerous cells that are too dangerous to remove at this time.

Radiation Therapy (Radiotherapy)

High-energy x-rays or other types of radiation beams used to damage any cancerous cells in your body in the process of Radiation therapy. Radiation can be delivered through a mask placed over your mouth and nose; it may also be applied directly to your skin using an external beam machine or brachytherapy device (a small tube containing radioactive material). Radiation therapy can also be used with chemotherapy together.


Chemotherapy might be used before or after surgery to shrink a tumour that has not been taken off during surgery. After surgery, chemotherapy can be given daily for three to five months while radiation therapy kills the remaining cancer cells in your body. Chemotherapy also may be used alone if there are no signs of disease at a specific site after surgery such as pain or numbness in your arm or leg (numbness).


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