Illustration of Spine cancer or spinal tumor disease
Motor skills, weakness or numbness in the limbs, or pain in the back may be a sign of spinal cancer.

Spinal Cancer: A Type of Rare Cancer

Cancer is invasive, and it can affect any body part, including the spine. Spinal cancer is not one of the major cancers in the world, but it’s a complex disease with major ramifications if left untreated.

What Is Spinal Cancer?

Spinal cancer is a relatively rare type of cancer. 1 in 140 men and 1 in 180 women develop the disease over their lifetime.

Primary spinal cancer develops from abnormal or uncontrolled cell growth within the spinal cord or surrounding bones, tissues, fluid, or nerves. These cancer cells can form tumors within the spinal canal or vertebrae, causing issues to your brain’s messaging system.

The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissues that goes from the base of the brain down the back. One of the spinal cord's jobs is to relay important messages between the brain and body.

Spinal Cancer Causes

The formation of abnormal cells causes cancer, and the overabundance of these abnormal cells can result in a spinal tumor. Since spinal cancer is typically the result of metastasized cells, the cancer doesn’t usually begin in the spine itself but develops from the cancer cells in another part of the body.

Researchers propose that spinal tumors develop partially due to genetics, so if there is a history of cancer in your family, your risk increases.

Other cancer causes could be something in the environment, like exposure to certain chemicals. Spinal cord tumors are also linked to two known inherited symptoms: Neurofibromatosis 2 and Von Hippel-Lindau disease.

Spinal Cancer Symptoms

Spinal cancer symptoms depend on factors like tumor type, size, location, patient age, and health history. Symptoms may occur slowly over time, or they may advance rapidly (in as little as a matter of hours or days). It’s common for symptoms to develop quickly with metastatic spinal tumors.

The most noticeable sign of spinal cancer is pain in the back, neck, arms, or legs. This pain may be the result of the tumor pushing on nerve endings or causing spinal instability. Other symptoms include:

  • Numbness in the limbs
  • Weakness in the arms or legs
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Difficulty walking
  • Clumsiness
  • Change in bowel habits
  • General loss of sensation (which can include varying degrees of paralysis)
  • Spinal deformities causing changes in posture or kyphosis (hunchback)

Spinal Cancer Diagnosis

With any medical condition, be sure to seek medical intervention immediately. Your family doctor will refer you to a specialist if any of your preliminary symptoms concern them. You will need to go through several tests, which may include:

  • Your complete medical history
  • Physical exam
  • Neurological exam
  • X-rays
  • MRI scan
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • Bone scan
  • Myelography
  • Biopsy

Based on the results of your tests, the oncologist will be better able to confirm the type/location of any tumor or cancer cells and develop a treatment plan. The specialist will be able to determine if the cancer is malignant, benign, or not a tumor at all (actually a cyst, plaque, or another type of mass).

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Spinal Cancer Prognosis

Prognosis depends on several factors:

  • Tumor grade: lower grades typically have a better outcome
  • Tumor type: some types have a better prognosis than others
  • Age: those under 55 typically have a better prognosis
  • Location of the tumor: if it can be removed with surgery, there is a better prognosis
  • Size of the tumor: small tumors have a better prognosis
  • Tumor spread: the prognosis is less optimistic if the tumor has spread
    Response to treatment: how your body responds will give a better idea of what the future holds

Spinal Cancer Types

Specialists grade and diagnose spinal cancer and developing a treatment plan designed for each specific type of spinal cancer. Spinal tumors are classified according to their location in the spine. Tumors can be malignant (can spread to other parts of the body) or benign (don’t spread).

The Grades of Spinal Cancer

  • Grade I: the tumor grows slowly and hasn’t spread anywhere else. It’s possible to remove the tumor completely with surgery.
  • Grade II: the tumor grows slowly but may spread into nearby tissues and may come back after surgery.
  • Grade III: the tumor grows quickly and will likely spread into nearby tissues.
  • Grade IV: the tumor grows aggressively, and the cancer has spread to at least one other organ.
  • Metastatic spinal tumors don’t use the grading system.

Treatment for Spinal Cancer

Once your specialist knows the location, type, size, and grade of the tumor, they can design a treatment plan. All treatments come with side effects, so have a thorough discussion with your doctor before starting treatment.


When a tumor is limited to one portion of the spinal column, surgery is minimally invasive and may remove the cancer or relieve symptoms. Surgery may help remove any tissue pressing on the spinal cord and nerves.


Chemotherapy drugs and delivery methods are given based on the individual. Drugs can be pill form or injected into the vein. Some spinal tumors may require that drugs are given directly into the cerebrospinal fluid. Patients can do chemotherapy on its own, or in tandem with other treatments like surgery or radiation therapy.

Radiation Therapy

This targeted delivery system allows specialists to increase the dose and precision of radiation to a spinal tumor and reduce damage to healthy tissues. It is commonly used after surgical resection of a tumor to destroy microscopic tumor cells left behind. This treatment may be an option for metastatic spinal tumors.

Targeted Therapy

This type of treatment targets specific pathways or abnormalities in spinal tumor cells that are involved in tumor growth. This is often an option for patients who have a tumor recurrence after previous spinal cancer treatments.

Supportive Care Therapies

Supportive care therapies may include: nutrition therapy, naturopathic support, pain management, and oncology rehabilitation (which may help reduce chemo-related side effects and help maintain your quality of life – as much as possible – during treatment).


As with any health concern, make sure you speak to your doctor about any issues. Catching spinal cancer in the early stages can provide a better prognosis than waiting until symptoms get worse.