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Spinal cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on April 29, 2022.

Primary spinal cancer develops from cells within the spinal cord or in the surrounding structure of bones, tissues, fluid and nerves.

Along with the brain, the spinal cord forms part of the central nervous (CNS). The spinal cord is a column of nerve tissue that extends from the base of the brain down the back. It is surrounded by three protective membranes and is enclosed within the bones of the spine (vertebrae). It carries important messages between the brain and the rest of the body.

In 2022, around 25,050 new cancers of the brain or spinal cord are expected to be diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Spinal cancer is a relatively rare condition, with about 1 in 140 men and 1 in 180 women developing the disease in their lifetime. Brain tumors are more common than spinal tumors.

Primary spinal cord or column tumors are tumors that form from cells within the spinal cord itself or from its surrounding structures. Most tumors of the spine are metastatic tumors, which spread to the spine from another part of the body. Metastatic tumors occur in the central nervous system about 10 times more frequently than primary tumors.

No spinal cancer patient is the same. Get personalized treatment.

Diagnosing spinal cancer is a complex process that often involves an angiography, a nuclear medicine bone scan, lumbar puncture and/or other imaging tests. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our spinal cancer experts have training and experience in diagnosing, staging and treating all stages of the disease. They work with a multidisciplinary team of doctors and clinicians, and with each patient, to develop a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to the patient’s individual needs. That plan also includes supportive care therapies designed to help manage the side effects of cancer and its treatment, so you are better able to stay on your treatment plan without interruption and get back to your life.

This overview will cover the basic facts about spinal cancer, including:

If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of spinal cancer and want to schedule an appointment for diagnostic testing, or if you’re interested in a second opinion on your spinal cancer diagnosis and treatment plan, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

What causes spinal cancer?

Who gets spinal cancer?

There is no clear picture of any group of individuals more at risk for spinal cancer, other than statistics that show men are diagnosed with the disease at a slightly higher rate than women. Having some hereditary diseases, a compromised immune system, previous radiation therapy or exposure to some chemicals may increase the risk of developing spinal cancer.

Stephen Hook

Stephen H.

Hodgkin Lymphoma

"There is so much more to the experience of CTCA than just the treatment. Some people have asked me why I travel for treatment, why I don’t just go somewhere local. Doesn’t it make life complicated? No, it doesn’t. CTCA takes the worry away. Scheduling, appointments, all of these details are taken care of. My response when people ask me about the inconvenience of traveling for treatment is that all I need to do is get there and get myself home. CTCA takes care of everything else."

MORE ABOUT STEPHEN

More About STEPHEN

Types of spinal tumors

Most tumors on the spine metastasize to the spine from elsewhere in the body.

Cancers that appear in the central nervous system as primary spinal tumors may include:

  • Chondrosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that forms in cartilage
  • Chordoma, a type of bone cancer that commonly appears in the sacrum, in the lower back at the base of the spine
  • Ewing sarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects the bone and surrounding soft tissue
  • Lymphoma (also called primary non-Hodgkin lymphoma or extranodal lymphoma), a type of cancer that affects lymphocytes, the cells of the immune system
  • Multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that affects plasma in the blood cells
  • Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that weakens the bone

Many spinal tumors are benign (non-cancerous), but they may also cause serious problems as they grow and put pressure on spinal tissue and nerves. Common types of benign tumors of the spine include ependymomas, astrocytomas, meningiomas, schwannomas and hemangioblastomas.

Spinal cancer tumors are sometimes divided into the four regions where they may occur:

  • Extradural tumors (also called epidural tumors), which form inside the spinal column, often in the space surrounding the outer membrane (dura)
  • Intradural tumors, which form inside the dura
  • Intramedullary tumors, which are intradural tumors that grow inside the spinal cord
  • Intradural-extramedullary tumors, which are tumors that form in the meninges outside the spinal cord

Learn more about spinal cord types

Spinal cancer symptoms

Diagnosing spinal cancer

Tests and tools for diagnosing spinal cancer may include:

Learn more about diagnostic procedures for spinal cancer

Spinal cancer treatments

CTCA approach to helping you maintain your quality of life

Treatments for spinal cancer vary widely, depending on factors such as the location and extent of the disease. At CTCA, we understand that supporting your strength, stamina and nutritional balance throughout treatment is important to your recovery. That’s why we offer a range of supportive care therapies designed to manage the side effects of spinal cancer and its treatment—conditions like pain, nausea and limited mobility.

Our interventional radiology team may suggest a minimally invasive treatment to help manage pain and complications, as well as help alleviate a variety of treatment-related side effects. Our oncology rehabilitation therapists are also available to work with you to design specific programs that include range-of-motion training and light-resistance exercises, along with manual manipulation, especially if mobility is an issue.

You may also meet with a registered dietitian to develop a nutrition plan focused around foods that will support your digestive balance and get you the nutrients you need throughout treatment.

​Supportive care

Supportive care therapies that may be recommended to help spinal cancer patients stay strong and maintain their quality of life include:

​Oncology rehabilitation

​Oncology rehabilitation includes a wide range of therapies designed to help you build strength and endurance.

​Nutritional support

Every patient has the option of meeting with a registered dietitian.

​Pain management

Pain management is a branch of medicine focused on reducing pain and improving quality of life through an integrative approach to care.

Learn more