Patients' Guide to Spinal Cancer

Radiation Therapy for Metastatic Spinal Tumors

What to expect from this common treatment for metastatic spine cancer.

After you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic spinal cancer, the conversation goes straight to treatment. Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy, irradiation, or x-ray therapy) is a common treatment for cancers that spread to your spine from other areas of your body.
Man lying down undergoing radiation therapyRadiation therapy is a common treatment for cancers that spread to your spine from other areas of your body. Photo Source: Shutterstock.

A Quick Primer on Metastatic Spinal Cancer

If your doctor says your spinal tumor is metastatic, it means your cancer began in a different area of your body and then spread to your back or neck. The spine is the third most common site for metastatic cancer.

Cancers that originate in the lung, breast, and prostate (in men) are the three most likely cancers to travel to the spine. Gastrointestinal, lymphoma, melanoma, and kidney are also common primary sources of metastatic spine cancer.

Metastatic cancer accounts for an estimated 70 percent of all spinal tumors, so cancer in your neck or back is much more likely to be metastatic rather than primary. Primary cancers are those that live in the site where they initially grew, as opposed to metastatic tumors that develop in one location and travel to another.

You can get a deep-dive look at metastatic spinal cancer in Understanding Metastatic Spinal Tumors.

How Does Radiation Treat Metastatic Spinal Tumors?

Radiation therapy uses radioactive energy, much like x-ray, to kill cancer cells, shrink tumors, and reduce symptoms caused by the cancer (such as spine pain). Radiation may be your only cancer treatment, or it may be used in combination with other treatments.

Radiation destroys cancer cells by damaging their DNA. Cells with damaged DNA stop dividing, and they eventually die. The dead cells are then eliminated naturally by your body.

Radiation is effective at killing cancer cells, but it can also harm normal cells in the process. Your doctor will take precautions to minimize radiation therapy’s impact on normal cells and mitigate any side effects.

Benefits of Radiation for Spinal Metastatic Tumors

Radiation therapy has a long-standing track record for killing cancer cells and shrinking metastatic spinal tumors, which is why it’s widely considered a preferred treatment for this type of disease.

Other benefits of radiation therapy for metastatic spinal cancer include a high success rate of:

  • Preventing recurring spine tumors
  • Reducing tumor size, making it easier to surgically remove
  • Alleviating pain caused by spinal tumors
  • Treating spinal tumors that don’t require surgery

Side Effects of Radiation Therapy for Metastatic Spinal Tumors

Your radiation oncologist will target the radiation on the tumor and try to minimize the exposure to healthy tissue nearby. While radiation is often successful at killing cancerous cells, it can be hard on your body and lead to some side effects.

The range of side effects you may experience largely depends on the radiation dosage and where the radiation will occur on the spine. For example, if your doctor treats your cervical spine (neck) or upper back, you may develop a sore throat or problems with swallowing.

Other common radiation side effects include fatigue (this is the most common side effect), nausea, hair loss, skin irritation (a sunburn-like effect, for example), and nerve pain.

As you embark on radiation treatment, your medical team will prepare you for any specific side effects and give you information on how manage them. You may be prescribed medication to manage pain, or given information on integrative therapies like nutrition and mind-body healing to minimize any negative impacts of your radiation treatment.

Explore More About Radiation for Metastatic Spinal Tumors

As you begin treatment for metastatic spinal cancer, you will have a team of medical professionals working toward a successful therapeutic solution. Spine surgeons, radiation oncologists, and medical oncologists will work together to develop a plan that gives you the best chance of remission. Radiation technology has seen a wealth of advancements over recent years, and many types of radiation therapy exist today.

Updated on: 08/06/19
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Types of Radiation Therapy for Metastatic Spinal Tumors
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Types of Radiation Therapy for Metastatic Spinal Tumors

If your doctor includes radiation therapy as part of your metastatic spine cancer treatment plan, he or she can choose from numerous delivery methods available today.
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