What are spinal cord tumours?

Spinal cord tumours are rare. They can start in:

  • the spinal cord
  • the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord
  • the layers of tissue that protect the brain and spinal cord (the meninges).

There are several different types of tumour that can start in the spinal cord. The most common are:

Symptoms of spinal cord tumour

Symptoms depend on the position of the tumour in the spinal cord. Spinal cord tumours often cause symptoms by pressing on the spinal cord or nerves. This can cause:

  • weakness and numbness in the arms and legs
  • clumsiness or difficulty walking
  • back or neck pain
  • aching in the spinal area or arms or legs
  • tingling or pins and needles in the hands or feet
  • loss of bladder and bowel control (incontinence), if the tumour is in the lower part of the spinal cord.

Causes of spinal cord tumour

The causes of spinal cord tumours are unknown, but research is being done to find out more.

In a small number of cases, spinal cord tumours may be linked with inherited (genetic) conditions such as:

  • neurofibromatosis syndrome
  • von Hippel-Lindau syndrome.

People affected by these have a higher risk of some types of spinal cord tumour.

Diagnosis of spinal cord tumour

Your doctors need to find out as much as possible about the type, position and size of the tumour, so they can plan your treatment.

You will have:

  • an MRI scan or a CT scan to find out the exact position and size of the tumour.
  • Your doctor may check your reflexes and the power and feeling in your arms and legs.
  • You may also have blood tests to check your general health.

Getting support

Being diagnosed with a brain tumour can make you feel shocked, frightened, angry or upset. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Talking about your feelings can often help.

You may also want to get support from a brain tumour charity, such as:

How diagnosis affects your right to drive

Most people diagnosed with a brain tumour will not be allowed to drive for a time after their diagnosis. Your doctor, surgeon or specialist nurse will tell you if this applies to you. 

If you have a driving licence, you must tell the licensing agency you have been diagnosed with a brain tumour.

You could be fined if you do not tell them. You could also be prosecuted if you have an accident.

Grading of a spinal cord tumour

Your doctor may talk about the grade of a tumour. The grade of a tumour describes how abnormal the cells look under a microscope. This can help your doctor understand how quickly a tumour might grow and whether it is likely to spread.

Low grade spinal cord tumour

Most spinal cord tumours are low-grade. This means they grow slowly. They are sometimes called benign tumours. Low-grade spinal cord tumours do not usually spread to other parts of the brain or spine. But they may cause problems by continuing to grow and pressing on nearby nerves or the bones of the spine.

High-grade spinal cord tumour

High-grade spinal cord tumours grow more quickly. They are also called malignant tumours. They can grow into nearby tissues. They can also spread to lower down the spinal cord or brain. Spinal cord tumours do not usually spread to other parts of the body.

We have more information about grading.

Treatment for spinal cord tumour

The main treatments used for spinal cord tumours are surgery, radiotherapy and steroids.

Your treatment depends on:

  • your general health
  • the size, position and type of the tumour
  • the symptoms you have.

A team of specialists will plan your treatment. Your specialist doctor and nurse will explain the aims of your treatment and what it involves. They will talk to you about the benefits and disadvantages of different treatment types. They will also explain the risks and side effects.

You may be given a choice of treatment options. You will have time to talk about this with your hospital team before you make any treatment decisions.

You will need to give permission (consent) for the hospital staff to give you the treatment. Ask any questions about anything you do not understand or feel worried about. Tell your specialist if you need more information or more time to decide on a treatment.

Surgery

Surgery is the main treatment. If your surgeon cannot remove the tumour completely, they may be able to remove part of it. This is called debulking surgery. It can improve your symptoms by relieving the pressure on the nerves.

During surgery, the surgeon will take a sample of cells from the tumour (biopsy). This will be examined to find out what type of tumour you have. It can help your doctors plan further treatment, if needed. Sometimes it is not possible to remove the tumour. In this situation, the surgeon will only take a biopsy.

After surgery, you may be looked after in a high dependency unit or on the ward for a few days. Your surgeon will give you more information about what to expect.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy tumour cells. You may have radiotherapy:

  • as the main treatment when surgery is not possible
  • after surgery if the tumour cannot be completely removed
  • to reduce the risk of the tumour coming back
  • if a tumour comes back.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy tumour cells. It is rarely used for spinal tumours. Side effects depend on the drugs you have. Your doctor will talk to you about chemotherapy treatment, if it is suitable for you.

Steroids

Doctors prescribe steroid drugs to help reduce the swelling around spinal cord tumours. They reduce the symptoms caused by increased pressure and make you feel better. They may be given before or after surgery, and during or after radiotherapy.

It is important to take them exactly as your doctor has explained.

Talk to your doctor or specialist nurse if you are worried about any side effects of steroids. These will go away gradually as your doctor reduces your steroid dose.

Active monitoring

Active monitoring means regularly checking the tumour to find out if it is growing.

Instead of starting treatment straight away, you may see your specialist doctor regularly to have scans to check for changes in the size of the tumour. They will also monitor your symptoms carefully. Talk to your specialist doctor if you are worried about any symptoms.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are medical research trials involving people. Doctors may use clinical trials to test new treatments, find new drugs, or improve the way treatments are given.

Because these tumours are rare, there may not always be a relevant clinical trial happening. If there is, your doctor or nurse may ask you to think about taking part.

They will give you information about the clinical trial so that you understand what it means to take part. If you decide not to take part in a trial, your specialist doctor and nurse will respect your decision. You do not have to give a reason for not taking part. Your decision will not change your care. Your doctor will give you the standard treatment for the type of tumour you have.

We have more information about clinical trials.

Side effects of treatment for a spinal cord tumour

Your specialist doctor or nurse will explain your treatment and possible side effects. Most side effects are short term and will improve gradually when the treatment is over. Some treatments can cause side effects that do not get better. These are called long-term effects. You may also get side effects that start months or years later. These are called late effects. We have more information about coping:

After treatment for spinal cord tumour

After your treatment has finished, you will have regular check-ups, tests and scans. Spinal tumours may continue to cause symptoms even after treatment has finished. You can use your follow-up appointments to talk to your doctor about any worries or problems you have.

Many people find they get very anxious before appointments. This is natural. It can help to get support from family, friends or a specialist nurse.

We have more information about recovering after treatment for a brain tumour.

How we can help

Macmillan Grants

If you have cancer, you may be able to get a Macmillan Grant to help with the extra costs of cancer. Find out who can apply and how to access our grants.

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