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Spine and Nervous System Cancer

There are many causes of symptoms such as back pain, difficulty walking or a loss of sensation in your limbs. Experienced cancer specialists can rule out other, less serious conditions before confirming a diagnosis of cancer.

It’s important to receive care at an expert cancer center like Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, with specialists who have experience in evaluating and diagnosing spine and nervous system cancer. At Vanderbilt-Ingram, we provide a precise diagnosis and effective treatment, including complex spinal surgeries and access to clinical trials.

Spine and Nervous System Cancer: Why Choose Vanderbilt-Ingram

At Vanderbilt-Ingram, you will find:

  • Comprehensive, patient-focused care: An entire team of doctors including surgeons, radiation and medical oncologists, pathologists and others will combine their expertise just for you. Together they’ll discuss with you the best strategy to treat the cancer. This collaboration ensures you get the most effective treatment to meet your needs. Patients often come to our center for a second opinion on their diagnosis and treatment options.
  • Tumor boards: At our regular tumor boards (cancer care meetings), our spine and nervous system cancer experts discuss complex cases individually. Together, some of the nation’s leading cancer experts across medical disciplines collaborate on choosing a treatment plan.
  • Robust clinical trials: Our clinical trial program offers access to innovative approaches that are not yet available as standard care. Clinical trials often provide options when traditional treatments are unsuccessful.
  • Unmatched expertise: Doctors from all over the country, even the world, come to Vanderbilt for our commitment to advancing the research and treatment of cancer. That means you have access to highly skilled, educated doctors dedicated to making you well.
  • NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center: We are one of the premier cancer centers in the country and the only National Cancer Institute (NCI) Comprehensive Cancer Center in Tennessee that cares for adult patients as well as children. This designation recognizes our leadership in cancer care and research.

Types of Spine and Nervous System Cancer

Often cancer in your spine is metastatic, meaning it began in another part of your body and spread to your spine. Sometimes, the tumors start in your spine. Spinal tumors can be the result of hereditary diseases such as neurofibromatosis 2 and von Hippel-Lindau disease. Tumors we treat include:

  • Extramedullary tumors: Usually noncancerous, these tumors grow outside the spine in the surrounding tissue or nerves. They can press on your spinal cord and cause a variety of symptoms.
  • Intramedullary tumors: These originate in the spinal cord cells. Rarely, they come from other parts of the body.

Diagnosing Spine and Nervous System Cancer

We will begin the diagnosis by asking you about your symptoms and medical history. Let your doctor know about all your symptoms, as this information is important in helping us confirm a diagnosis. After a physical examination, your doctor may order other tests:

  • Imaging scans: These noninvasive tests use sophisticated technology to obtain clear, detailed pictures of your spinal cord. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans are the two imaging tests most commonly used.
  • Biopsy: We remove a small sample of the abnormal tissue to examine under a microscope. This is a minimally invasive procedure. We give you anesthetic before the biopsy so you won’t feel any pain.
  • Lumbar puncture: Also called a spinal tap, we remove a small sample of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to examine it for the presence of cancer cells. The CSF is the liquid surrounding your brain and spinal cord. We numb the area before the procedure so you are comfortable.

Spine and Nervous System Cancer Treatment: Our Approach

Once we confirm a diagnosis, we will develop your treatment plan, which may include one or more of the following options:

  • Surgery: At Vanderbilt-Ingram, our highly skilled surgeons have experience removing the most complex tumors for the best possible outcomes. 
  • Chemotherapy: Your doctor may recommend strong medication to shrink or destroy your cancer. We offer chemotherapy services at multiple infusion centers, so you can get care at the location that’s closest to you. 
  • Radiation: Radiation may be an important part of your comprehensive treatment plan. Your doctor will direct high-energy rays from a machine to target the tumor.
  • Clinical trials: Sometimes the best option is one that is still in the testing phase. You may be eligible to participate in a trial when other treatment options aren’t appropriate for you. Vanderbilt-Ingram is renowned for its vibrant clinical trial program.

Comprehensive Post-Treatment Support

Cancer affects all aspects of your life, and it affects you even after treatments are completed. We offer robust support services – including a survivorship program and an integrative care center – to help you during treatment and in your life after treatment.



Radiation Oncologists