February 22, 2015 | by Denise Heady
The spinal cord is an integral part of the human body, connecting the brain to everything else. So when a tumor grows on the spine, any messages that the brain tries to send to the rest of the body are interrupted, making everyday tasks — such as walking — more difficult.
This year an estimated 22,850 people will be diagnosed with a malignant tumor of the brain or spinal cord in the United States, and nearly 15, 320 people will die from these tumors. That number doesn’t include tumors that have spread to the spine from other parts of the body.
These numbers may seem alarming, but an increased use of diagnostic imaging has led to improved detection of spine tumors, making them more treatable than ever before.
Here, neurosurgeon and scientist Mike Chen, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in City of Hope's Brain Tumor Program, presents a fuller picture of spine tumors, explaining what everyone needs to know, especially former cancer patients.
1. The vast majority of spine tumors are metastatic, originating elsewhere in the body.
A malignant tumor in the spine is rare — less than 1 percent of cancer diagnosis is a primary spine tumor. However, as many as 70 percent of patients with cancer will experience spread of cancer to their spine, Chen said. Although any type of cancer can spread to the spine, Chen said, breast cancer and prostate cancer have the highest rates of metastasis to the spine.
2. If found early, a spine tumor can be relatively easy to treat.
“A vast majority of the time, a spine tumor is something that doesn’t even need treatment,” said Chen in a City of Hope audiocast. “Detection treatments are so good now that we can find these tumors early, and chemotherapy or hormonal therapy will often kill the spine tumors, along with any other tumors in the body.”
Should the tumor progress beyond that treatment option and become systematic – but not threatening to the health of the spinal cord – then radiation can be an excellent treatment option.
“In very rare cases, when the structure of the spine becomes compromised or if the spinal cord itself is under pressure from a tumor growing into a spinal canal, then surgery is a good option,” Chen said.
3. The most notable symptom for spine tumors is persistent pain.
If you’ve had cancer and are experiencing persistent pain without an obvious traumatic incident, you need to ask your doctor to check it out, Chen said.
“Persistent pain without an obvious traumatic incident is the most important symptom to look at in regards to spine tumors,” he said. Other symptoms include weakness, numbness, decreased sensitivity, and loss of bowel or bladder function.
4. Spine tumor surgery is far less dangerous than many people think.
A lot of people worry that undergoing spinal surgery will leave them paralyzed. That isn't the case.
“If you are walking into surgery, we can almost guarantee you are going to walk out,” Chen said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time you are going to be absolutely fine,” added. “It’s about as good odds that you could ask for.”
Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion at City of Hope by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.