What is Cancer of the Vertebrae?
Cancer of the Vertebrae arises due to development of the tumors, which affect the vertebrae of the spine and are called vertebral tumors.1 Vertebral tumors develop outside the spinal region and in most cases are metastasized from tumors at some part of the body, although there are some tumors which originate from the spine namely chordoma, chondrosarcoma, and osteosarcoma.
Cancer of the vertebrae can significantly affect the nervous system of the body due to its close proximity with the spinal cord and significantly impair neurological functioning of the patient due to the pressure that it may exert on the nerve roots of the spine and also by pushing the spinal cord. Cancer of the vertebrae also tend to cause significant pain, may result in vertebral fractures, or cause instability of the spinal cord.
Cancer of the vertebrae can become a life threatening condition and needs to be treated in an emergent way as they may cause permanent disability. The front line treatment for cancer of the vertebrae includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy along with medications specific for treatment of cancer of the vertebrae.
What Causes Cancer of Vertebrae?
Vertebral tumors which cause cancer of the vertebrae rarely originate from the spine and there is no clear explanation as to why they develop. Studies suggest that there is a genetic link suspected in development of such tumors, although it is not known whether these gene defects are inherited, they occur spontaneously, or are there any environmental triggers such as exposure to certain chemicals which result in development of vertebral tumors causing vertebral cancer.
In majority of the cases of cancer of the vertebrae, the vertebral tumors are metastasized from cancer cells from somewhere else in the body. The most common primary cancers which may spread to the vertebra to cause cancer of the vertebrae are breast cancer, lung cancer, or prostate cancer as these are the organs which are nearest to the spine. Bone cancers also have a tendency to spread to the vertebrae causing cancer of the vertebrae. Individuals with a prior history of cancer to some other part of the body are at increased risk for having cancer of the vertebrae.
What are the Symptoms of Cancer of Vertebrae?
The symptoms of cancer of the vertebrae depend on the size and location of vertebral tumors like if the tumor affects the spine, nerve roots, blood vessels and the like. Some of the symptoms of cancer of the vertebrae are:
- Pain at the site of the tumor.
- Back pain with radiation to other parts of the body.
- Sensation loss in the upper and lower extremities.
- Problems ambulating.
- Loss of bowel or bladder function.
- Unintentional weight loss.
- Paralysis affecting different parts of the body depending on the nerves that are affected.
Vertebral tumors causing cancer of the vertebrae tend to grow very rapidly and hence they need to be treated on an emergent basis as soon as a diagnosis is confirmed.
How is Cancer of Vertebrae Diagnosed?
There are often times when vertebral tumors may be missed due to the similarity of the symptoms with so many different conditions and they are pretty rare. Hence, it is extremely vital for the physician to known a detailed history of the patient. In case if a vertebral tumor is suspected, then the physician may perform the following tests not only to confirm the diagnosis but also to pinpoint the location of the tumor, so that treatment may be started at the earliest.
To begin with an MRI scan of the spinal cord will be obtained to look at the internal structures to pinpoint the location of the tumor. A CT scan may also be done for this purpose.2 Once the location of tumor is identified then a biopsy of the tumor is conducted so as to ascertain whether the tumor is benign or malignant. In cases of vertebral cancer, the tumor is malignant. All these tests confirm the diagnosis of cancer of the vertebrae.
What is the Treatment for Cancer of Vertebrae?
To begin with, cancer of the vertebrae is treated with radiation therapy. In case if the tumor is very small then radiation therapy along with closed monitoring is done to see whether there is any change in the size of the tumor. This is followed by chemotherapy. If the vertebral tumor still continues to grow in size despite treatments then surgery or excision of the tumor is necessary. With the advancement that medical science has made over the decades parts, which were considered as inaccessible a few years back are easily accessible now.
In case if the tumor cannot be completely removed even after surgery, then surgery may be followed by radiation and chemotherapy to further shrink the vertebral tumor. It may take several months to recover from surgery for a vertebral tumor removal. There are also certain medications that can be given to reduce the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Since the radiation and chemotherapy can sometimes cause inflammation within the spinal cord, hence corticosteroids may be prescribed to control the inflammation post treatment for cancer of the vertebrae.