The following describes the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of spine cancer. For specific information regarding your health and treatment options, please contact your Hurley physician or medical professional.
What is spine cancer?
Most spinal cancers are metastatic or secondary cancers, which are cancers that started somewhere else in the body and spread to the spine. The potential for cancers to spread to the bones and other areas of the body is one of the primary reasons our Hurley oncologists order x-rays and other imaging techniques, which can detect the presence of cancers in the bones and other areas of the body, beyond the original site of the cancer.
Primary spinal cord tumors are tumors that started in the spine and not as a cancer in another area of the body. These are often benign (non-cancerous) and are fairly rare. Malignant (cancerous) primary spinal cord tumors are rarer still.
What are the symptoms of spine cancer?
The symptoms of spine cancer vary across individuals, and often depend upon the location, type of tumor and your own level of general health. Symptoms of spine cancer may appear similar to symptoms of other illnesses and disorders. While primary tumors may progress slowly over a longer period of time, metastatic tumors that have spread to the spine from another area of the body can grow and spread very quickly. For all of these reasons, you should always speak to your Hurley physician immediately concerning any symptoms you are experiencing.
Spinal tumor symptoms include new or abnormal sensations in the back or spine area, back pain, muscle spasms and weakness, or loss of muscle function. Reflexes in other areas of the body may be unusual, and you may experience changes in and loss of pain and temperature sensation in the back, as well as tenderness in the spine.
How is spine cancer diagnosed?
During your appointment, your Hurley physician will ask you questions about your medical history and conduct a complete physical examination. Laboratory tests may be ordered, including blood, urine and other tests.
Your physician may conduct a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) cell test, in which a small sample of the fluid that circulates around your spine and brain is withdrawn and analyzed by a trained pathologist for white and red blood cell counts and for the presence of other, abnormal cells. Imaging technology may also be used to detect cancer of the spine and to determine the location and spread of tumors. These imaging tests include CT scans, MRI scans, bone scans, x-rays, and myelograms (in which dyes and x-rays are used in combination to examine the fluid filled spaces between spinal bones, or vertebrae).
How is spine cancer treated?
Part of the diagnostic testing process involves grading and “staging” the spine cancer. In this step, your oncologist will determine the type of cancerous cells or tumors present, the rate of tumor growth, and the degree to which the cancer may have spread to or is affecting other organs and systems of the body. Your oncologist will then recommend a course of treatment that takes this information into account, as well as your age, overall health, and personal and family circumstances, and your unique needs and objectives for treatment.
Where the risk to spinal nerves is low, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove tumors and cancerous tissue. New technologies—including improved surgical procedures and instruments—enable surgeons to reach once-inaccessible areas of the spine with minimally invasive techniques. This results in significantly less pain for the patient and less bleeding (and the resulting need for blood transfusions), while allowing shorter hospital stays and promoting faster recovery.
Combination surgery-radiation techniques use MRI or CT scans to guide the delivery of radiation directly to the tumor from multiple angles. Chemotherapy, both before and after surgery, or instead of surgery, is used to shrink and/or kill tumors. Traditional radiation therapy is also used to target and destroy tumors and cancerous cells.
With spinal cancer, there is the risk of broken or damaged vertebrae, which—along with pressure on the spinal cord from tumors—can cause pain and make it hard to move or walk. Our oncologists work closely with our orthopedic surgeons to perform vertebroplasty (strengthening the vertebrae through the injection of a cement-like material) and kyphoplasty (reshaping damaged vertebrae), which can relieve pain, strengthen the spine and make it easier to conduct normal life activities. Electrical stimulation of the spinal cord and morphine pumps can also reduce pain.
Research on spine cancer is ongoing; you may wish to speak with your Hurley physician about clinical trials that are testing new, emerging treatment options.