Tumors of the bony spinal column may require resection with stabilization of the spinal column to improve patient outcome, reduce the risk of paralysis and reduce pain. Although the goal in metastatic spinal tumors is often palliative, the goal in some primary bone tumors, such as chordoma of the spinal column, is to effect a cure.
Occurrence of metastatic spine tumors is becoming increasingly common as the number of cancer survivors grows. It is estimated that vertebral masses develop in approximately 40 percent of cancer patients, and 10 to 20 percent have spinal cord compression. Metastatic spinal tumors can cause fractures, pain and neurologic dysfunction from spinal cord compression.
Advances over the past 15 years have improved outcomes in the surgical approaches taken to manage metastatic tumors. Often, surgery is followed by adjuvant radiotherapy. The goal of surgery is to reduce pain and improve function by removing the tumor, decompressing the spinal cord, and stabilizing and reconstructing the spine. The purpose of surgery is to maintain or improve the patient's quality of life.
At Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the criteria for surgical candidacy include the type of tumor and the patient's expected survival time (three to six months or more) and current functional and overall health status. Occasionally, metastatic tumors are identified before loss of function, but for patients with a sudden onset of weakness or paralysis, the window of opportunity to restore function is very short — usually less than 24 hours. Patients who live at a distance from Mayo Clinic may be flown to Rochester by Mayo's emergency medical helicopter service for immediate evaluation.
Chordomas are slow-growing primary malignant bone tumors that can reach enormous proportions. Although far more rare than metastatic tumors, chordomas represent the most common primary malignant tumors of the sacrum and the mobile spine. Symptoms are often insidious in onset, and their cause remains undiagnosed for months to years, until the tumor is so large that it disrupts function.
Depending on their location, chordomas can cause:
They can become large enough to compress vital structures, such as the aorta or vena cava.
Chordomas are encapsulated tumors. If a surgeon tries to debulk or break up the tumor in surgery, the tumor will spread. If the entire tumor is removed en bloc as an intact whole, however, survival can be prolonged. Anything more than a needle biopsy risks recurrence. Thus, it is critical that the tumor be removed as a single mass, even when the tumor is extremely large.
In addition to problems stemming from their unusual size, chordomas can metastasize to other organs. Without surgery, chordomas are fatal in approximately 50 to 70 percent of patients. The procedure is provided at only a few medical centers in the world and typically involves a radical en bloc resection.
Depending on the location of the tumor, such a procedure may involve thoracic, orthopedic, cardiac, general and plastic surgeons in addition to the neurosurgeon. Surgery may take place over several days, during which the site is prepared, the entire tumor removed in a single encapsulated mass and the spine reconstructed. Such a procedure requires several days of coordinated efforts among multiple team members and postoperatively the services of a pain management team and rehabilitation specialists.
Resecting a large chordoma as an encapsulated whole can be extremely challenging. Major en bloc resections of this type, however, can be done with the kind of specialized expertise and interdisciplinary team effort that is characteristic of Mayo Clinic's practice.
Although spinal tumor removal may require a major surgical procedure, patient surveys show that patients are pleased with the outcome. For patients with chordoma, surgery can be lifesaving. For appropriately selected patients with metastatic spine tumors, surgery can make a marked difference in quality of life.