Spinal Cord Cancer

Our doctors are experts at treating spinal cord cancer. Our treatment includes a unique collaboration with neurosurgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, and specialists from radiology, pathology, and radiation oncology to ensure that you get the best, most compassionate care.

Spine cancers are tumors on or near the spinal cord. Because the bones of the spinal (backbone) surround the spinal cord, a tumor in this area can press on nerves and other sensitive tissues and cause pain, weakness or loss of function. Although spinal cord tumors affect people of all ages, they are most common in young and middle-aged adults.

Spinal cord tumors occur in upwards of 10 percent of the patients with cancer, most commonly in those with breast cancer, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma. While malignant cells elsewhere in the body can easily seed tumors inside the brain and spinal cord, malignant central nervous system tumors rarely spread out to other body parts. While some spinal cord tumors grow rapidly, the majority of these tumors are slow growing. Symptoms of spine tumors include pain, weakness, loss of sensation, and loss of bladder or bowel control.

There are many types of spinal cord tumors. A primary tumor is one that starts in the spinal cord. A metastatic tumor starts somewhere else and spreads to the spinal cord.

Types of cancer that can spread to the spinal cord are:

If our experts think you might have a spinal cord tumor, the first test used to diagnose spinal column tumors is a neurological examination. Special imaging techniques such as computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) are also performed.

Laboratory tests include the electroencephalogram (EEG) and the spinal tap. A biopsy, a surgical procedure in which a sample of tissue is taken from a suspected tumor, helps diagnose the type of tumor.

Treatment options

Your treatment team includes spinal cord cancer experts who work together to offer you the most current technology and treatment available. We customize treatment plans for each patient, and will work with you to determine the best plan for you.

Your plan might include the following treatment options:


Depending on where the cancer is located, patients with spine cancer may see a neurosurgeon or orthopaedic surgeon. Surgery is common for benign and malignant primary spinal cord tumors; however it may not be the best option when cancer has metastasized and spread to the spine. Recent developments in imaging as well as new surgical tools and techniques, such as ultrasonic aspirators and lasers, have significantly expanded the role of surgery as an intervention.

Medical therapy

Our medical oncologists will work closely with the surgical, radiation, dietary and other members of your multidisciplinary cancer care team to help create an individualized treatment plan for you.

Supportive care provided by our medical oncologists includes:

  • Pain medications
  • Anti-nausea medications
  • Intravenous fluids
  • Electrolyte supplements and balance

Radiation therapy

Most patients with primary spinal cord tumors will not require radiation therapy. Radiation therapy is used to treat:

  • spinal cord compression due to metastatic cancer
  • some primary tumors of the spine
  • benign or low-grade spinal cord tumors that cannot be completely removed surgically

The spinal cord is sensitive to the effects of radiation. Our radiation oncologists work carefully to minimize the risk of radiation-induced damage to normal spinal tissue since it can be progressive and irreversible. The thoracic spinal cord segments, or those located near the chest where half of all spinal tumors occur, are the most sensitive to the effects of radiation.

Radiosurgery with an advanced device called the Novalis Tx may be an option for some patients. Novalis Tx is a painless, non-invasive treatment that delivers high doses of precisely targeted radiation to destroy tumors or lesions. Radiosurgery minimizes radiation exposure to healthy tissue surrounding the tumor.

Novalis Tx uses a linear accelerator with a finely shaped beam and a robotic couch to deliver highly focused beams of radiation.  In addition, the Novalis Tx uses x-rays and cone beam CT to confirm with great precision the placement of the beams. With this system, any part of the body such as the spine and the spinal cord may be treated.

Our team

At the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, we are committed to improving the lives of people with spine cancer by offering the highest quality care based on innovative research. Treating spine cancer requires a well coordinated team. Our team of neurosurgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, radiologists, pathologist, neurologist and radiation oncologists work together to create personalized treatment plans.