Central nervous system tumors can affect the spine, too

Central nervous system tumors can affect the spine, too

January 13, 2021

While we usually talk about brain tumors here, and Brains for the Cure bills itself as a resource for the brain tumor community, it’s important that we address the issue of spinal tumors, because not only are they a serious problem, but many of the tumors types that can affect the spine are, in fact, the same basic diseases as common common brain tumor types. The overlap is so great that the group at the National Cancer Institute which we work with most closely is known as NCI-CONNECT Rare Brain & Spine Tumor Network

Many of the same tumors that target the brain can affect the spine as well. Spinal tumors are a serious diagnosis that require medical attention.

Spinal tumors can cause pain, neurological symptoms such as seizures or loss of muscle control, and even paralysis. A spinal tumor is a serious diagnosis, especially if it’s malignant, and may require treatment in the form of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and more. If you suspect a spinal tumor, your immediate next step is to get an MRI and get in touch with a qualified specialist.

Collectively, brain and spine tumors are sometimes called Central Nervous System (CNS) tumors. This is a useful designation because both the brain and the spine are made up of nerve cells and cells that surround and support nerves. These include glial cells, astrocytes, meninges, and more. 

There are two main types of primary spinal tumor. First are intramedullary tumors, which begin in the cells of the spinal cord itself. Gliomas (e.g. glioblastoma), astrocytoma, and ependymoma fall into this category. Second are extramedullary tumors, which start in the membrane around the spinal cord. These include meningiomas, neurofibromas, schwannomas and nerve sheath tumors. (Source: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spinal-cord-tumor/symptoms-causes/syc-20350103)

NCI-CONNECT recently featured two stories of spinal tumor patients. One patient, Lee, wrote about his experiences suffering from pain and severe spasms around his spinal tumor site, and then the process of preparing for surgery and recovering. He was relieved to discover from the post-surgical pathology report that his tumor was a non-cancerous schwannoma. Another patient, Beth, wrote about discovering a tumor in the center of her spine, which was causing issues for her but seemingly not growing. She had to make the tough decision about whether to pursue surgery, and ultimately deciding that was the right choice for her family. 

Both of these stories illustrate the physical and emotional pain that can accompany a spinal tumor, and the hard decisions faced by people diagnosed with them.