Spine Cancer: Signs, Symptoms and Treatments

12th August 2020  

cancer of the spine

Your central nervous system controls your body processes and functions and is made up of a complicated combination of brain and spinal tissues. Cancer of the spine occurs when cells in or around the spine grow abnormally and develop a tumour. Spotting the signs of cancer early is important for successful treatment. In this article we will take a closer look at spine cancer, common symptoms and prognosis, available treatments and life expectancy.

Spinal cancer symptoms

Although spine cancer is rare it is important to understand the key symptoms. As you might expect, one of the most common symptoms of spinal cancer is backache or pain around the spinal area. The pain associated with a spinal tumour can sometimes feel as though it is spreading around the body, and may not dissipate when you lie down or rest.

Another telltale sign of cancer of the spine is weakness or unusual sensations in your limbs. These sensations might present as pain but can also include increased sensitivity, numbness and pins and needles. On occasion these issues might lead to an inability to move the arms or legs.

Spinal cord compression can sometimes be caused by spinal cancer. This is a serious condition where a tumour is pressing on the spinal cord. One symptom of spinal tumour can be problems with the bowels or bladder.

If you are concerned about any of the symptoms of spine cancer it’s important to contact your GP or medical team as soon as possible. Diagnosis can include bone scans, lumbar puncture and image tests such as MRI and CT scans.

spinal cancer

Spine cancer treatments

Treatment for cancer of the spine varies according to the location of a tumour and how far the cancer has progressed. It is possible that, if a tumour isn’t compromising surrounding tissue, your doctor will recommend careful monitoring and scans at appropriate intervals.

Surgery is often possible and can either remove all or part of a tumour. Particular care has to be taken to avoid nerve or spinal cord injury. Surgery is very precise and technologically advanced but it may not always be possible to completely remove a tumour. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy can take treatment further.

Radiotherapy is a common post-surgery treatment for spine cancer but can also be the treatment choice for metastatic spinal cord compression. Radiotherapy is a versatile treatment that can eradicate remaining tumour traces as well as treat precariously located tumours.

Chemotherapy drugs destroy cancer cells or stop them from growing further. These drugs are often given orally or intravenously but some spinal tumours respond well to direct administration via the cerebrospinal fluid found inside the spinal cord.

spine cancer

Types of spinal cancer

Spinal cord cancers can start in the spinal cord itself or in the surrounding protective tissues and nerves. There are several different types of primary spine cancer that can grow in the spinal tissues themselves. The most frequently diagnosed include;

  • Haemangioblastoma (a benign type of brain tumour)
  • Ependymoma (a type of cancer in the nerve cells of the spinal cord)
  • Meningioma (a cancer in the protective meninges surrounding the spinal cord)
  • Astrocytoma (another type of cancer in the nerve cells of the spinal cord)

Primary spinal tumours are relatively uncommon, and often non-cancerous or benign. Metastatic spinal cancer occurs when a cancer has spread from another part of the body. One of the reasons cancer can spread so easily into the spine is that it forms part of an intricate network of tissues that includes, blood vessels, nerves, membranes and cartilage as well as bone. Other types of cancer that carry a high risk of spreading to your bones include prostate, breast and lung cancers.

Spinal cord compression

Spinal cord compression can occur when a spinal tumor places the cord under pressure. It is important to contact your hospital team or GP immediately if you notice symptoms of spinal cord compression. These include;

spinal cancer symptoms

  • Worsening pain in your back or neck
  • Loss of sensation or pins and needles
  • Issues with your bladder or bowels
  • Problems with obtaining an erection

Diagnosis of spinal cord compression might require a CT or MRI scan.

Spinal cancer life expectancy

One of the most commonly asked questions is, ‘Is spinal cancer curable?’ The answer to this is complicated and will depend on multiple factors. Early diagnosis is really important, as is your general level of fitness and your body’s response to treatment. There currently aren’t any UK statistics available for spinal tumour prognosis but USA findings suggest younger people may have better prospects than people over 65.

Radiotherapy or radiation therapy for spinal cancer can take different forms. One of the unfortunate side effects of radiotherapy can be reddened and sore skin. If you are experiencing discomfort following radiotherapy treatment for spine cancer, our cooling and soothing R1 and R2 gels can make a big difference. Applied as directed these can repair damaged skin and soothe away discomfort, making your progress through radiotherapy treatment easier.