Spinal (Spine, Spinal Cord) Cancers
The spine (also known as the spinal column, vertebral column and backbone) is the bony column that encloses and protects the soft tissue spinal cord.
The spinal cord (along with the brain) forms part of the central nervous system (CNS) and is a 17-18 inch-long thin tubular bundle of nervous tissue and support cells that extends from the brain.
A special liquid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounds and cushions the spinal cord. Neural signals (messages) are transmitted between the brain and the rest of the body through very long nerve fibers that branch from the spinal cord into other parts of the body, such as the arms and legs.
These messages tell our muscles how to move, transmit information gathered by our senses, and help coordinate the functions of our internal organs, such as bladder and bowel control.
Spinal tumors form when the cells of the spine or spinal cord begin growing abnormally, forming masses of abnormal cells called tumors. These tumors can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous).
Tumors of the Spine
Chordomas are the most common malignant tumor of the bones of the spine. Appearing most often in adults older than 30 years, chordomas tend to grow slowly and usually do not spread to other parts of the body. These tumors develop in the cells of cartilage, a soft form of bone-like tissue.
Tumors of the Spinal Cord
Like spine cancer, spinal cord tumors rarely spread to distant organs, but they can still threaten life and cause permanent disability. Whether malignant or benign, a spinal cord tumor can destroy normal tissue in the area around it or in nearby areas.
For instance, tumors don’t usually form in neurons (nerve cells) the main cells of the spinal cord that send signals through their nerve fibers (axons) to different body parts. However, neurons can be damaged by tumors that start nearby.
This can cause pain, neurological problems as well as paralysis. Unless completely removed or destroyed, most spinal cord tumors will grow and eventually become life-threatening.
Many spinal cord tumors are named after the cell in which they form and are grouped by grade (the way the cells look under a microscope).
Most spinal cord tumors develop in one of the following three types of glial cells (the supporting cells of the brain): astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and ependymal cells. Tumors beginning in these glioma cells are known generally as gliomas, but are also named by the cell from which they form:
- Astrocytoma (or glioblastoma): This tumor begins in the star-shaped glial cells called astrocytes, which help support and nourish neurons. While they can spread within the spinal cord, it is very rare for them to spread outside of it.
- Oligodendroglioma: The glial cells called oligodendrocytes make myelin—the fatty substance that protects nerves and helps them transmit messages. Tumors formed from these cells are called oligodendrogliomas, which rarely spread outside the spinal cord.
- Ependymomas: The ependymal cells line the fluid-filled pathways through which cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) flows. Ependymomas develop in these cells.
These tumors form in the meninges, the layers of tissue that line and protect the spinal cord.
These benign tumors develop from Schwann cells, which surround and insulate spinal nerves. Although benign, they can grow and press against the spinal cord, causing sensory loss, bowel and bladder problems, as well as weakness.