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What is spinal cord cancer?

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Last reviewed: 21/05/2021
Medically reviewed

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In this article

What is spinal cord cancer?

Spinal cord tumours are growths in or next to the spinal cord. Sometimes, these growths grow uncontrollably and invade nearby tissue. When this happens, the growth is called spinal cord cancer. But not all spinal cord tumours are cancerous – some (known as benign tumours) don’t spread to other parts of the body.

Spinal cord cancer can either arise directly from your spinal cord (called primary tumours) or it can spread from cancer somewhere else in your body (called a metastasis).

Many different types of spinal cord cancers exist and they’re defined by where they come from. For example ‘sarcomas’ can come from the soft tissue or bone around the spinal cord, ‘meningiomas’ come from the lining of the spinal cord, and ‘gliomas’ come from within the spinal cord itself.

What are the symptoms of spinal cord cancer?

The symptoms of spinal cord cancer depend on where in your spine they are.

The most common symptom is pain that:

  • is there all the time
  • wakes you up at night
  • feels like a gnawing pain

As spinal cord cancers can press on the nerves around your spinal cord, you may also notice:

  • tingling or numbness
  • weakness in 1 part of your body
  • difficulty walking or moving around

These symptoms typically start on 1 side of your body, but may affect both sides later on.

In severe cases spinal cord cancer may also make it hard for you to control when you poo or pee.

Spinal cord cancer may also cause you to lose weight without trying.

If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor urgently.

You should also go to an emergency department if you:

  • are finding it increasingly difficult to move your arms or legs
  • have numbness or tingling around your genitals (vagina or penis)
  • have trouble controlling when you poo or pee

These changes may be a sign that the tumour is putting pressure on your spinal cord.

How is spinal cord cancer treated?

If you’re diagnosed with spinal cord cancer, treatment may include:

  • steroids to help stop the tumour from putting pressure on your spinal cord
  • an operation to remove the tumour
  • radiotherapy to help shrink the tumour
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