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Spinal cord tumours

Read about spinal cord tumours, their treatment and possible side effects. 

What it is

About 20 out of 100 (20%) of central nervous system tumours are in the spinal cord. 

They can be low grade (slow growing) or high grade (fast growing). Different types of brain tumour can develop in the spinal cord. One example is a chordoma.

Meningiomas and neuroficromas are the most common types of spinal cord tumour in adults. They grow outside the spinal cord but press on it. Astrocytomas and ependymomas are the most common types of spinal cord tumours in children. They grow within the spinal cord.

How treatment is decided

Treatment for a spinal cord tumour depends on:

  • the type of brain tumour you have
  • its position in the spinal cord
  • your age

Treatment can be different for adults and children.

Treatment in adults

Steroids 

You might have steroids straight away to bring down the swelling around the tumour. This relieves symptoms and reduces permanent damage to your spinal cord. Usually you carry on taking steroids after surgery or radiotherapy to shrink the tumour. 

Surgery 

It might be possible to completely remove the tumour if it is in the outer part of the spinal cord. Even if a small amount of tumour is left behind, surgery can immediately reduce pressure on your spinal cord. 

You might need further treatment if some of the tumour has been left behind. Or your doctor might monitor this with regular MRI scans. This is called watchful waiting, You might have treatment at a later time if the tumour starts to grow or change. 

Radiotherapy

You might have radiotherapy after surgery if your surgeon cannot remove all of the tumour completely. Or you might have radiotherapy if your tumour comes backafter treatment. You usually have treatment over 6 weeks. 

Chemotherapy

Your doctor might recommend chemotherapy if your tumour comes back after radiotherapy. This could help to reduce your symptoms. 

Side effects of treatment in adults

Side effects will depend on:

  • the size of your tumour when it was diagnosed 
  • how much surgery you have
  • how long you had symptoms before you were treated 

You may have numbness in some parts of your body. The effect will depend on the position of the tumour along your spine.

The nerves that control different parts of your body come out of different parts of your spine. Tumours in the upper spine can affect your arms. Tumours in your lower spine might affect your legs, bladder or bowel control, or your sexual function. 

Treatment for children

In children, the different types of tumour that develop in the spinal cord include:

  • glioma
  • neuroblastoma
  • Ewing's sarcoma 

Surgery is the most common treatment in children. If the tumour is low grade (slow growing) this might be the only treatment your child needs. 

Your child might have chemotherapy or radiotherapy after surgery if:

  • the tumour is high grade (fast growing)
  • the tumour can't completely be removed with surgery

Your child might have chemotherapy instead of radiotherapy if they are younger than 3 years old. The side effects of radiotherapy can be severe in children under 3. 

Side effects of treatment in children

Children can have long term side effects after treatment for a spinal tumour. 

The more severe the symptoms of weakness or paralysis before treatment, the more likely these may carry on after treatment.

Curvature of the spine can develop soon after treatment, or several years later. This is more likely if one of the bones of the spine (vertebrae) had to be removed during surgery.  

Coping with spinal cord tumours

Coping with a diagnosis of a spinal tumour can be difficult, both practically and emotionally. It can be especially difficult if you have a rare spinal cord tumour. Being well informed about your tumour and its treatment can make it easier to make decisions and cope with what happens.

Follow up

You will have regular check ups once you finish your treatment. Your doctor will examine you and ask about your general health.

This is your chance to ask questions and to tell your doctor if anything is worrying you.

How often you have check ups depends on your individual situation.

Research and clinical trials

There may be fewer clinical trials for rare types of cancer than for more common types.

It is hard to organise and run trials for rare cancers. Getting enough patients is critical to the success of a trial. The results won't be strong enough to prove that one type of treatment is better than another if the trial is too small.

The International Rare Cancers Initiative (IRCI) aims to develop more research into new treatments for rare cancers. They are designing trials that involve several countries so that more people will be available to enter trials.

Information and help

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About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.