Spine Tumors & Spinal Cancer

Memorial Sloan Kettering neurosurgeon Mark Bilsky

Neurosurgeon Mark Bilsky is Director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Multidisciplinary Spine Tumor Center, which evaluates and treats more than 1,500 spine tumors a year.

Spine tumors and spine cancer can develop in the bones, nerves, and other tissues that make up the spine, which facilitates movement and supports your body.

Your spine is a flexible column of linked bones (vertebrae), muscles, tendons, and other tissues that go from the base of your skull to your tailbone. It includes three protective membranes that encase your spinal cord and fluid.

Fewer than 10 percent of spine tumors begin in the spine. The ones that do are called primary tumors. They can be benign (noncancerous), low-grade malignant (cancerous) tumors that grow slowly, or high-grade tumors that grow aggressively. Most spine tumors are metastatic — they spread from cancer in a different part of the body.

Some spine tumors, such as astrocytomas, happen more commonly in children and teenagers.

Spine Tumor Symptoms

As a spine tumor grows, it can replace your bones or compress your nerves, resulting in compression fractures or reduced blood supply to the spinal cord. Often, the first symptom of a spine tumor is the pain you feel from these changes. The time of day when your pain happens can provide important information about the tumor.

Pain that happens mainly when you move usually means that the tumor is causing weakness or instability in the bones of your spine. Pain experienced primarily at night or in the early morning that gets better as you move is often an early sign that the tumor has metastasized (spread). This happens because your adrenal gland becomes less active when you’re asleep.

Spine tumors that are close to major nerves can disrupt their ability to transmit messages between the body and the brain. This can cause neurologic symptoms, including:

  • weakness, tingling, or numbness in both legs or arms
  • difficulty walking or balancing
  • sensory problems
  • loss of bowel and bladder control

Risk Factors

We don’t yet know what exactly causes spine tumors. We have seen that people with certain immune disorders or genetic conditions, such as neurofibromatosis 2, are more likely to develop spine tumors than other people.


Spinal Metastases

Spinal Metastases — From Stubblefield and O’Dell’s “Principles and Practice of Cancer Rehabilitation,” Demos Medical Publishing

There are many different types of spine tumors, which are diagnosed and treated by their location and the type of cells they contain.

Most primary and metastatic spine tumors are epidural tumors. These tumors grow in the bones of your spine. As they grow, they can compress your spinal cord, nerve roots, and spinal fluid.

Another type is intradural tumors, which include:

  • intramedullary tumors that grow within the spinal cord, such as ependymomas and astrocytomas
  • extramedullary tumors that grow outside the spinal cord, such as meningiomas, schwannomas, and myxopapillary ependymomas

Tumors called nerve plexus tumors grow next to the spine in the nerve plexus. They include tumors such as neurofibromas and ganglioneuromas. The experts at our Spine Tumor Center have experience in treating all types of spinal tumors, even those that are complex and advanced.

The Spine Tumor Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering

Each year, more than 1,500 people come to the Spine Tumor Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering for expert diagnosis and treatment. Our multidisciplinary spine tumor team is made up of international leaders in neurosurgery, orthopaedic surgery, radiation oncology, and neuroradiology who are innovators in the field. Our staff also includes physiatrists (physicians who specialize in rehabilitation medicine), physical therapists, occupational therapists, and nurses with special expertise in addressing the challenges that people with spine tumors face.

At the Spine Tumor Center, patients see multiple spine tumor specialists all on the same day. Our team collaborates from the beginning on all aspects of care, and meets at least twice a week to develop an individualized treatment plan for each patient. This unique approach ensures that every patient benefits from the collective experience of our entire team, and that your treatment will be comprehensive, timely, and well coordinated. Depending on the specific features of your disease, treatment goals may include completely eliminating the tumor; controlling tumor growth; stabilizing the spine and relieving pain; and/or improving mobility, neurologic function, and quality of life.