Spinal Cord Cancer

Spine Center

Appointment New Patient Appointment or 214-645-8300

At UT Southwestern Medical Center, doctors who specialize in spinal cord cancer have expertise in the latest treatment techniques in surgery and radiation therapy. With a collaborative approach, our team coordinates care with multiple specialists to meet each patient’s individual needs.

As the only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center in North Texas, we deliver the best cancer care available today and push to discover new treatments. NCI designation means we offer patients the ability to participate in the broadest possible range of clinical trials, with access to potential therapies not available at other facilities.

Coordinated Care for Spinal Cord Cancer

In patients with spinal cord cancer, abnormal cells begin growing uncontrollably in and around the spinal cord. The spinal cord is part of the central nervous system, which transmits information between the brain and the rest of the body. Bundles of very long nerve fibers in the spinal cord carry signals that control muscle movement, sensation, and organ function.

At UT Southwestern, the spinal oncology team provides expert care for people with spinal cord cancer. Doctors in the Spine Center and Simmons Cancer Center work together in a multidisciplinary group comprising experts from surgical oncology, radiation oncology, medical oncology, neurosurgery, orthopaedic surgery, pain management, and physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Causes and Risk Factors of Spinal Cord Cancer

Although the causes of spinal cord cancer are unclear, medical experts believe that genetic mutations could be involved. It is also still unknown if the specific genetic mutations are hereditary (passed down through families) or acquired (developed over time). 

Factors that can increase the risk of developing spinal cord cancer include:

  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Von Hippel-Lindau disease, a rare hereditary disorder related to blood vessel tumors in the brain and spinal cord and associated with tumors in the kidney or adrenal gland
  • Neurofibromatosis 2, a hereditary disorder in which benign (noncancerous) tumors grow on or near nerves responsible for hearing

Symptoms of Spinal Cord Cancer

Depending on where cancer develops along the spinal cord, symptoms can develop in different parts of the body:

  • Nerves that go to the arms begin in the neck area of the spinal cord (cervical spine).
  • Nerves that lead to the legs, bowel, and bladder begin in the middle and lower back (thoracic and lumbar spine)

Spinal cord cancer that grows in the neck can affect the arms, legs, and bowel or bladder function. Spinal cord tumors that grow below the neck affect only the legs and bowel or bladder function.

Neck and back pain is a common symptom of spinal cord cancer. Specifically, symptoms can include:

  • Back pain that radiates to the hips, legs, feet, arms, or other areas
  • Back pain that worsens at night
  • Difficulty walking, which can lead to falls
  • Less sensation of pain, heat, and cold
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Lack of coordination, numbness, or weakness, especially in the arms or legs
  • Mild to severe muscle weakness in different parts of the body
  • Pain at the tumor site, caused by tumor growth

Diagnosis of Spinal Cord Cancer

Symptoms of spinal cord cancer can be similar to those of other conditions. It is important for people to see their doctor if they have any of the symptoms. 

At UT Southwestern, our spinal cancer specialists conduct a thorough examination, beginning with discussing the patient’s medical history and conducting a physical exam.

If our doctors suspect a spinal cord tumor, they can order one or more additional tests to help confirm a diagnosis and determine the tumor’s location. Tests include:

  • Neurological exam: The doctor assesses spinal cord function with tests of balance, coordination, muscle strength, and reflexes.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan: MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnet to produce detailed images of the spine, spinal cord, and nerves leading to other parts of the body. With a spinal MRI scan, we might inject a contrast agent into the patient’s vein to highlight certain types of tissue and structures.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: CT uses specialized X-rays with or without a contrast agent to produce cross-sectional, 3D images of the spine.
  • Biopsy: Our doctors might take a small sample of tissue suspected to be cancer in order to examine it under a microscope.

Treatment for Spinal Cord Cancer

The goal of spinal cord cancer treatment is to completely eliminate the tumor, and treatment must take into account the risk of damaging the spinal cord and nerves branching from it.

Once we confirm a diagnosis, we work closely with each patient to develop a personalized treatment plan. Factors that help determine a treatment plan include the type of tumor, its location, the stage of the cancer, and the patient’s overall health. 

Our doctors might recommend one or more treatment options, such as:

  • Monitoring: Small tumors that grow slowly and are not pressing on nearby structures can be monitored for changes. Patients typically have MRI or CT scans at regular intervals to watch the cancer.
  • Surgery: If the risk of damage is low, surgery to remove the tumor can be the best option for some patients.
  • Radiation therapy: Our doctors use treatment with high-energy waves, such as X-rays or gamma rays, to treat spinal cord cancer. Radiation therapy can destroy cancer cells left after surgery, and it can also treat inoperable tumors. At UT Southwestern, we use the latest radiation technology to precisely target tumors and minimize damage to nearby healthy tissue. Additionally, we offer highly specialized intraoperative radiation therapy techniques that permit treatment of the tumor bed directly at the time of surgery.
  • Other medications: Medications such as corticosteroids can reduce symptoms, such as swelling and inflammation around tumors. These medications do not treat the cancer itself.

Supportive Care

We offer a variety of support services for patients with spinal cord cancer and their families, such as:

Clinical Trials

As a medical research institution, UT Southwestern conducts frequent clinical trials, giving our patients access to the newest treatments for spinal cord cancer. Patients should speak with their doctors about the availability of clinical trials.