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Is Cancer in the Spine Fatal?

Reviewed on 1/12/2021

What Is Cancer in the Spine?

Cancer in the spine may be fatal, depending on the stage of the cancer when it was diagnosed, or whether it is metastatic (spread) from other organs.
Cancer in the spine may be fatal, depending on the stage of the cancer when it was diagnosed, or whether it is metastatic (spread) from other organs.

Cancer in the spine occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in the spinal cord or the bones, tissues, fluid, or nerves that make up the spinal column. Spinal cancer that arises from the tissue of the spine itself is a relatively rare type of cancer, affecting about 24,000 Americans each year. Other cancers in the body spreading (metastasizing) to the spinal bones are more common.

Cancer in the spine is classified by its location on the spine. Most spinal tumors are metastatic tumors, which means they have originated in another part of the body and spread to the spine. Breast, prostate, and lung cancers are the most common cancers that spread to the spine.

What Are Symptoms of Cancer in the Spine?

Symptoms of cancer in the spine depend on the tumor type, size, location, and the age and health history of the patient. Spinal cancer symptoms include:

  • Pain (back and/or neck pain, arm and/or leg pain)
  • Numbness and tingling in extremities
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty urinating (incontinence)
  • Changes in posture, such as hunchback (kyphosis)
  • Spinal deformities
  • Clumsiness
  • General loss of sensation 
  • Difficulty walking 
  • Inability to move the legs 
  • Pain or difficulty with standing 
  • Not knowing where one’s feet are
  • Difficulty with buttons or keys
  • Change in bowel habits 
  • Paralysis (as the disease progresses)

What Causes Cancer in the Spine?

The cause of cancer in the spine is unknown. Many spinal tumors are metastatic tumors that originate elsewhere in the body and spread to the spine. Breast, prostate, and lung cancers are the most common cancers that spread to the spine.

Risk factors for spinal cancer include:

  • Prior history of cancer
    • Cancers that may spread to the spine include breast, lung and prostate cancers, as well as multiple myeloma
  • Compromised immune system
  • Certain genetic conditions:
  • Exposure to radiation therapy or industrial chemicals

How Is Cancer in the Spine Diagnosed?

In addition to a patient history and physical examination, tests used to diagnose cancer in the spine include imaging tests such as: 

What Is the Treatment for Cancer in the Spine?

Treatment for cancer of the spine varies widely, depending the location and extent of the disease, and may include one or more of the following:

  • Surgery
    • Used to remove the tumor when the tumor is limited only to one portion of the spinal column
    • For metastatic spinal tumors, it may be used to relieve symptoms
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
    • Commonly used following surgical removal of a tumor to destroy microscopic tumor cells left behind
  • Interventional radiology
    • Procedures are used to manage pain and complications, perform biopsies, and alleviate symptoms due to cancer treatment
  • Targeted therapy
  • Steroids to help with swelling and back pain

If a spinal tumor is a metastatic and originated in another part of the body and spread to the spine, the original cancer is treated. 

Cancer in the spine may be fatal, depending on the stage of the cancer when it was diagnosed, or whether it is metastatic (spread) from other organs. 

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Reviewed on 1/12/2021
References
https://www.cancercenter.com/cancer-types/spinal-cancer

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/spinal-cancer-and-spinal-tumors
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