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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% 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.
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:
Because most spinal cancers are not associated with known causes or risk factors, there is no real way to prevent these tumors.
A prompt and accurate diagnosis of spinal cancer is extremely important. Diagnosis can be challenging, as many of the symptoms are similar to those for other, more common conditions. If you experience any of the symptoms described above, or for any reason believe you may have a spinal tumor, visit your Wellstar neurologist.
Diagnosis starts with a thorough medical exam and history to learn about your discomfort, exposures, general and family health. Your neurologist will also conduct a neurological exam to help pinpoint the location of the tumor. The doctor will look for signs including:
Unlike other types of cancer, primary spinal cancers are not assigned a stage because they rarely move beyond the spine. Stages are used to indicate how far a cancer has spread beyond the original site.
Wellstar neurologists will use a variety of diagnostic tools and tests to view and diagnose a spinal tumor. Among these:
If the scans indicate a tumor, your doctor will perform a biopsy to definitively determine that it is or is not cancerous. This involves extracting a small tissue sample and examining it under a microscope. If the tumor is malignant (cancerous) a biopsy helps identify the type of cancer, which influences the treatment plan.
Treatment options for spinal cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. It is important that treatment begin promptly in order to reduce or prevent nerve damage from the tumor pressing on the spinal cord.
Your Wellstar physicians will discuss the best course of treatment for you, taking into account the type of tumor, as some respond well to chemotherapy while others respond best to radiation. They will work closely with Wellstar cancer treatment specialists on the best possible treatment plan.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing. Chemotherapy may be used alone or in combination with radiation. Side effects can include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, hair loss and increased risk of infection.
Radiation uses high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells. For tumors that started elsewhere (metastatic tumors) radiation may be the first choice for treatment. Radiation is used:
Some medications can help ease side effects of radiation including nausea and vomiting. Depending on the type of tumor radiation can be delivered externally, using focused beams of energy or charged particles directed at the tumor. Or it may be delivered internally using a surgically implanted device. Your Wellstar neurologist and radiation oncologist will determine the best radiation treatment plan for you.
Some metastatic tumors (those that affect the spine but started elsewhere) can only be treated with surgery. The decision to pursue surgery is based on a number of factors, especially the type of spinal tumor. In some cases surgery may actually provide a cure, while in other cases (such as metastatic spinal tumors), the goal is palliative. This refers to steps like relieving pain, stabilizing the spine or preserving neurological function.
Surgery is an option when:
Typically, patients who undergo surgeries for spinal cancer remain in the hospital for several days after the operation. Many have post-surgery physical rehabilitation (rehab) to regain strength and function. Wellstar has an excellent rehabilitation program with a variety of options and convenient locations. Your doctor will recommend a rehabilitation plan and help you understand what to expect.
Radiation and surgery can worsen inflammation inside the spinal cord. For that reason your doctors may recommend a steroid medication to reduce the swelling. This may be given during radiation or following surgery.
The prognosis for people with malignant spinal tumors varies according to age, overall health status and whether the tumor is primary or metastatic. Prompt treatment for primary spinal cancers can have a significant impact on long-term prognosis and hope for a cure; metastatic tumors, given their nature, are harder to cure.
Cancer care at Wellstar is more than advanced technology, clinical research and specialized physicians and nurses. It also includes a variety of supportive services to improve the patient experience before, during and after treatment. We offer:
Wellstar offers smoking cessation programs that educate people about smoking risks, encourage behavior modification to help minimize smoking urges and offer numerous coping strategies.