Spine Cancer

Spine cancer at a glance

  • Spine cancer is aggressively abnormal cell growth in the spinal canal or the vertebrae of the spine that forms a malignant tumor(s).
  • Spinal cord tumors and vertebral tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous, but either form can result in disability and even death.
  • Cancerous vertebral tumors, which account for about 90 percent of spine cancers, usually spread to the spine from breast and lung cancers in women and from prostate cancer in men.
  • CyberKnife radiosurgery effectively treats spinal cord and vertebral tumors by non-invasive, accurately targeted radiation to destroy tumors.

What is spine cancer?

Spinal cancers are divided into primary and secondary types. “Primary” spine cancer develops within the spine column. Spinal cord tumors can also be primary or secondary (metastatic) cancers. It is unclear what causes tumors to develop in the spinal cord or the membranes (meninges) covering the spinal cord.

Cancerous vertebral tumors (in the vertebrae) are “secondary” cancers, or metastatic cancer, that have spread to the vertebrae from another part of the body, such as the breast, prostate or kidney.

Spine cancer affects about 10,000 people a year. About 90 percent of cancerous tumors of the spine are metastatic tumors, originating in another part of the body. Some rare vertebral cancers do originate in the vertebrae and are primary cancers.

The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that extends from the base of the brain down the back, and is surrounded by three protective membranes. The spinal cord is part of the central nervous system (CNS).

Normally the cells within the CNS divide and grow in an orderly and controlled way. If this process gets out of control, the cells keep dividing and form a lump or tumor.

Tumors are either benign or malignant. A benign tumor keeps growing but is not cancerous and can’t spread anywhere else in the body. A malignant tumor is cancerous and the cells can grow into and destroy surrounding tissue, as well as spread to other parts of the CNS.

Spinal cord tumors

  • Intramedullary tumors — found within the spinal cord, and the most common types are astrocytoma and ependymomas. It is also possible to have an intramedullary tumor that has metastasized from a malignant tumor somewhere else in the body.
  • Intradural extramedullary tumors ­— start inside the coverings of the spinal cord, but outside the cord itself. Meningioma and nerve-sheath tumors, such as schwannomas, are the most common.

Vertebral tumors

Vertebral tumors are also called extradural tumors, meaning outside the spine’s dura, the outer most layer of protective tissue around the spine. Noncancerous and cancerous vertebral tumors can both cause serious damage. Cancerous vertebral tumors usually spread to the spine from breast and lung cancers in women and from prostate cancer in men.

Any vertebral tumor, cancerous or not, can result in loss of sensation or movement in the area below the tumor. Permanent nerve damage is possible. Vertebral tumors can also cause:

  • Instability in the spine
  • Fractures or spinal collapse that can damage the spinal cord
  • Death from tumors that restrict the spinal cord.

What are the symptoms of spine cancer?

Spinal cancer symptoms depend on the tumor type, size, location, health history of the patient, and more. Symptoms can occur very gradually or swiftly, even over a matter of hours or days. Vertebral tumors that have spread from another location in the body to the spine often progress quickly.

Pain is the most noticeable sign of spinal cancer. Pain can come from the tumor pushing on sensitive nerve endings or causing spinal instability in the spinal column.

If the tumor presses on the spinal cord, there may be tingling or numbness in the arms or legs. Symptoms that develop after some time include clumsiness, such as not knowing where the feet are, and fumbling buttons or keys. As the disease progresses, spinal cancer symptoms may include weakness, inability to move the legs and eventually paralysis.

Common signs of spinal cord cancer tumors and vertebral cancer tumors may include the following:

  • Back and/or neck pain
  • Arm and/or leg pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of sensation
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Spinal deformities (hunchback)
  • Paralysis
  • Pain or difficulty standing.

Learn About Spine Cancer Treatment