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Between 15 and 20 percent of central nervous system (brain and spinal) tumors occur in the spine.*
*Source: M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

Spinal Oncology (Spinal Cancer) Overview

A cancerous spinal tumor (mass) is a growth of cells in or surrounding the spinal cord. The cause of these tumors is not known. Some occur with genetic defects, others are linked to exposure to cancer-causing substances and some occur in people with a compromised immune system.

Tumors that start in spinal tissue are called primary spinal tumors. About 70 percent of all spinal tumors spread to the spine from another location (breast, prostate, lung, etc.) and are called secondary spinal tumors. This process is known as metastasis. In a small number of cases spinal tumors occur in the nerves of the spinal cord.

Cancers that start in the spinal cord can spread to other parts of the central nervous system, but they rarely spread to other organs.

One way to identify spinal tumors is by their location.

  • Intramedullary tumors are located inside the spinal cord
  • Another type occurs in the membranes (meninges [məˈnɪndʒiːzs]) that cover the spinal cord
  • Extradural, the most common spinal tumor, occur between the meninges and the bones of the spine

Spinal tumors (including those that are benign, or non-cancerous) can cause damage or impairment in several ways, including by pressing on the spinal cord, nerve roots, blood vessels or spinal bones. This can result in neurological problems like paralysis. Tumors can also kill healthy cells or disrupt their function.

WellStar neurologists and neurosurgeons have deep experience and expertise in caring for patients with spinal cancers. They work closely with oncologists (cancer specialists), radiation oncologists, pathologists, physical therapists, palliative care physicians and other highly skilled specialists.

We recognize that a diagnosis of spinal cancer is deeply concerning to patients and their families. WellStar brings the highest level of skill and compassion to every patient with spinal cancer. The neuroscience team collaborates on a highly personalized treatment plan depending on the location, type, size and status of the tumor. It also incorporates your personal situation and preferences.


The most common symptom is non-mechanical back pain, especially in the middle or lower back. Non-mechanical means that the pain is not associated with a particular activity, injury or type of stress.

The pain may worsen with activity and is often worse at night or while lying down. The pain may extend from the back to the hips, legs, feet or arms. Back pain can also be a symptom of noncancerous spinal tumors. That’s why it’s important to discuss symptoms with your WellStar neurologist.

Other symptoms of spinal cancer:

  • Muscle weakness or loss of feeling in the legs, arms or chest
  • Difficulty walking, as it can lead to falls
  • Decrased sensitivity to pain, heat and cold
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Paralysis in varying degrees in different parts of the body.

Risk Factors


Although most spine and brain (central nervous system) cancers are not associated with any known risk factors, researchers have identified links between the condition and certain other factors.


  • Exposure to radiation therapy and to certain industrial chemicals
  • Presence of a prior cancer (breast, lung, prostate and multiple myeloma)
  • Immune system disorders
  • Family history. In rare cases spinal cord and brain cancers run in families

Related Information

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