Spine cancer is the growth of abnormal cells around or in the spine that results in a tumor. If the cancerous cells originated from the cells in the spinal tissues, the resulting cells are referred to as a primary spinal tumor. If the cancerous cells originated from a different part of the body and traveled to the spine through the blood, then it’s referred to as a metastatic tumor. Treatment for tumors located in this area can be very tricky, depending on the exact location and the amount of tissue that needs to be removed. In many advanced cases, a physician will not attempt surgery because of the major physical toll it has on the body. Severe cases may be treated with a combination of chemo and radiation therapy if surgery fails to completely remove the tumor.
Spinal Cancer Symptoms
A form of spinal cancer that involves a primary tumor is rare. Metastatic tumors spread to other areas through the bloodstream, within the fluid that surrounds the brain and to the spine or along the nerves. These cells typically originate from the colon, breast or skin and are then deposited in it, eventually growing into a tumor.
Both primary and metastatic cancer can be very dangerous because they can destroy the bone and the tissues that surround it or they can compress the spinal cord.
Any type of tumor can occur in the spine including tumors caused by lymphoma, leukemia and myeloma. Tumors that occur on the nerves of the area are rare. Most of these are Gliomas and Ependymomas. A tumor that grows in the spinal tissue is known as the primary tumor.
The symptoms of this type of cancer can vary, depending on the type and location of the tumor, as well as your overall health. A tumor that’s spread from another area of the body will usually progress quickly. A primary tumor will usually progress at a slower rate, over a period of months or years. A tumor located on the spine will typically cause symptoms, while the tumors outside of it tend to grow for months or years before it begins to cause nerve damage.
Cancer symptoms can include the lack of sensation or abnormal sensations, in the upper or lower legs, with the pain presenting as shooting pain. Back pain in the lower or mid-back that worsens over time, pain that is not minimized by medication and pain in the back that worsens when you lie-down are also signs of a possible tumor, in addition to such signs as muscle contractions, muscle weakness and muscle function loss.
The most common symptom of a tumor is back pain that tends to get worse upon waking or during the night, although, most types of back pain are not caused by a tumor. Increased weakness, and numbness in the limbs are neurological symptoms that can occur several months following the onset of back pain. A person can experience any combination of symptoms, and individuals with metastatic tumors might not have any symptoms at all.
Treatment Options for Primary and Metastatic Tumors
If a tumor is found on the spine, your physician will perform an extensive exam of all major organs where cancer commonly develops. The evaluation will include a complete physical, medical history, CAT scan and MRI, x-rays, and a neurological exam.
Because the majority of tumors occur as a result of advanced cancer from another organ, treatment goals for spinal tumors usually involves pain management, working to preserve neurological function, and repairing structural instability in the spine. Most types of spinal tumors are removed if possible, in order to reduce pain and preserve neurological function. A critical part of the surgery is avoiding damage to the spinal cord and highly sensitive surrounding nerves. Monitoring techniques may be utilized during the surgery in order to determine if the spine is still functional after the removal of the tumor. If the surgeon is unable to completely remove the tumor, radiation therapy may be necessary in order to improve the outcome. Should the surgeon discover that the tumor is metastatic, chemo will also be prescribed.
After surgery, it can take time for the nerves surrounding the spine to fully heal. Typically, rehab and occupational therapy can help to improve neurological function.
The goal for treatment of spinal cancer will be to prevent or reduce damage to the nerves caused by pressure on the spine. With the onset of these symptoms, treatment will be necessary in order to attempt to prevent injury or permanent damage.
Treatment will include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and physical therapy. Ongoing physical therapy sessions are recommended for improvement of muscle strength as well as to increase the ability of ambulating independently.
While surgery is more commonly recommended for malignant and benign tumors, the role of surgery for treatment of spinal metastasis is still controversial. Most physicians will recommend surgery for patients with a single tumor and no evidence of cancer growing in another area of the body.
Most patients with primary tumors won’t require radiation therapy. Radiation therapy will be used to treat metastatic cancer, or cancer that’s spread from other areas of the body. The spine is much more sensitive to the effects of radiation than the brain.
A Brighter Outlook for Patients Suffering from Cancer of the Spinal Column
Because back pain is the most common symptom of spine cancer, it can often go undiagnosed for an extensive amount of time. But should you notice pain in the back that fails to improve over time or even becomes worse as you try to reposition yourself when lying down, make an appointment with your physician in order to rule out more serious conditions. Early detection and treatment is crucial for survival and to also preserve mobility and neurological function. Surgery may not be possible or even necessary through early detection. Instead most physicians tend to order a round of chemo or radiation or a combination of the two, to prevent a lengthy recovery from surgery. If these therapies are ineffective, surgery will be the next step.