Cancers of the Spine: Effects and Treatments

by Wellness Editor – MH

When people think of cancer, they often think of cancers that affect the lungs, skin and prostate. Unfortunately, the spine is not immune from the reach of malignant tumors; in fact, when combined with brain tumors, spinal cancer is the second most common form of cancer among American children. The impact of this disease, along with the treatment of those who develop it, can vary from person to person.

Areas of Concern

Generally speaking, spinal tumors can be divided up into two distinct categories:

Intramedullary tumors: These tumors originate in spinal cord cells, and tend to strike the upper portion of the spine. Once they form, intramedullary tumors can be difficult for doctors to evict from the body. On a positive note, they are usually benign (non-cancerous).

Extramedullary tumors: Extramedullary tumors form outside the structure of the spinal cord. Their presence can easily place pressure on the spinal cord itself, a problem referred to as spinal cord compression.

The US National Library of Medicine notes that tumors of all typescan emerge inside the spinal cord. Leukemias, lymphomas and myelomas are three prime examples of cancers that can wreak havoc in this part of the body. The majority of spinal tumors are found between the vertebrae and the meninges, the protective layer that shields both the spinal cord and brain.

A Wide Range of (Possible) Problems

The physical imprint left by spinal tumors can be heavily determined by both the tumor’s location and the type of tumor in question. A person’s general health can also be highly influential in this regard.

Some potential symptoms triggered by these tumors are shown below:

  • Progressively increasing back pain, which might radiate to the hips and legs. This pain often increases in severity when an infected person sneezes, coughs or lies down, and cannot be effectively treated with pain medications.
  • Unusual sensations in certain parts of the body. The legs are the region most likely to encounter this problem. Alternatively, the body’s limbs might suffer from a loss of sensation.
  • An increased risk of falling due to muscular weakness. This lack of muscle strength can also make it difficult to walk. Aside from becoming noticeably weak, the muscles might also twitch, contract or spasm.
  • An inability to fully control the bladder and/or the bowels, resulting in the unexpected and unwanted release of waste.
  • The growth of a cancerous tumor near or in the spinal cord can make a person less sensitive to both heat and cold. They might also become more tolerant of pain.

Saving the Spine

Like the symptoms caused by these growths, the treatment methods used for spinal tumors can differ greatly from person to person. When weighing their options, doctors must not only consider the type of growth involved, but must also take into account its origins. The treatments that can be used to address spinal cancer include  surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Surgery: Assuming the risk level is low enough, a doctor will typically turn to surgery to deal with spinal tumors. Relatively recent advances in surgical technology have made this a more practical option, as tumors that were once unreachable can now be safely extracted. Though it has improved significantly in recent decades, spinal tumor surgery is not always able to completely remove troublesome growths.

Radiation Therapy: Radiation therapy can be used to get rid of tumor pieces left behind by surgery. Doctors might also take this approach to remove tumors that are inoperable, or if the patient’s cancer has spread to the spinal column from other areas. The side effects of this treatment depend on which regions of the body are exposed to radiation; they can include fatigue, nausea, vomiting and sore throat.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy attempts to put the brakes on cancer cell growth by using medications. These drugs can be taken in a variety of ways, such as by pill form or intravenously. Some patients with spinal cancer are treated with both chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The effectiveness of this treatment against spinal tumors has yet to be proven.

In addition to the treatments listed above, spinal cancer may also be treated with physical therapy, corticosteroids and emergency surgery if needed.

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