Vertebral tumor care at Mayo Clinic

Your Mayo Clinic care team


Bruce Pawelk: I grew up hunting and fishing. I've been a lifelong member of Minnesota, you know? A few years ago I was experiencing lower back pain. I went to my regular doctor, and they decided to do an MRI. Biopsy was performed, and they came in and told me, "You have cancer. You have a very deadly cancer."

Michelle Clarke, M.D., Neurosurgery, Mayo Clinic: Bruce was diagnosed with a chordoma, and that is a type of tumor that grows often in the sacrum or the skull base through the top and bottom of the spine. And it is a slowly growing but fairly aggressive tumor. Now the treatment for a chordoma is an aggressive surgery where we take the tumor out in one piece.

Bruce Pawelk: Dr. Clarke is one of the few doctors in the world that could do this surgery. She explained to me with great confidence, I can get this thing. You could see it in her eyes. This gal wasn't going to lose.

Dr. Clarke: Because it is so complicated, very few people are interested in doing it. And Mayo Clinic is one of the places where we are easily able to get these multi-disciplinary teams together and perform such complex surgeries.

Bruce Pawelk: You meet this team, and this team thoroughly, thoroughly goes through every process, and explains it to you, what's going to happen.

Dr. Clarke: One of the major concerns we had with surgery was losing function of the legs, especially his feet, which would have really made it difficult for him to do a lot of the things that he really enjoys doing.

Bruce Pawelk: When I came to after surgery, I was in intensive care. And one of the surgeons came in and pushed on my feet and said, "Can you feel this?" I said, "Yeah." "Can you wiggle your toes?" I wiggled my toes. "Can you push on my hands?" I pushed on her hands and she goes, "Yes!"

Dr. Clarke: Bruce is actually doing very well. And it is amazing when he comes back and talks about all the things he's doing.

Bruce Pawelk: I love to walleye fish. I love just to go snowshoeing in the woods. These are things that I always did, and I still can do them, but now it's with a whole different passion, a whole different meaning.

Dr. Clarke: The goal for all of us is to cure his cancer. And he has worked just as hard as we have to make that happen.

Bruce Pawelk: Through Mayo, I was able to regain my life I had before. I didn't have to go into that wheelchair that I feared so much. It really changes the outlook of your life.


Mayo Clinic's vertebral tumor teams include neuroradiologists, neuropathologists, neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, neurologists with subspecialty expertise in tumor diagnosis and management, rehabilitation specialists, and other professionals who work together to provide exactly the care each person needs.

Having all this expertise in a single place, focused on you, means that you're not just getting one opinion — your care is discussed among the team, your test results are available quickly, appointments are scheduled in coordination, and the most highly specialized vertebral tumor experts in the world are all working together for you.

What might take months to accomplish elsewhere can typically be done in a matter of days at Mayo Clinic.

Advanced diagnosis & treatment

Research at the Mayo Clinic Neuro-Oncology Program on spinal tumors includes finding ways to use technology for earlier diagnosis and to improve surgical techniques for tumor removal, avoid late complications related to tumor removal and identify which tumors are safe to monitor rather than remove.

Depending on the location of the tumor, thoracic, orthopedic, cardiac, general and plastic surgeons may be involved. At Mayo Clinic, it's not unusual to have five different surgeons in the operating room working together and using the latest technological advances available to them, including tools to precisely direct the surgery such as computer-assisted navigation.

Nationally-recognized expertise

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Mayo Clinic in Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona, and Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, are ranked among the Best Hospitals for neurology and neurosurgery in the U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals rankings.

Mayo Clinic doctors trained in spine conditions (neurologists) and spinal surgery (neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons) have experience in evaluating and treating people with vertebral tumors. Each year, Mayo Clinic spinal tumor experts provide comprehensive care for nearly 400 adults and children.

Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center meets strict standards for a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, recognizing scientific excellence and a multispecialty approach focused on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Mayo Clinic is also part of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, a group of scientists throughout the U.S. and Canada who work together to conduct clinical trials and reduce the impact of cancer.

Expertise and rankings

Mayo Clinic's world-renowned spinal tumor teams have been treating and removing spinal cord tumors for more than 100 years.

These teams include neuroradiologists, neuropathologists, neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, neurologists with subspecialty expertise in tumor diagnosis and management, rehabilitation specialists, and other professionals who work together to provide exactly the care each person needs.

  • Diagnostic and treatment capabilities. Mayo Clinic offers rapid diagnostic testing and assessments by a team of skilled experts. Neurologists and neurosurgeons work with experienced nerve tissue analysts to identify vertebral tumors.
  • Comprehensive cancer center. Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, giving you access to new developments and treatments for spinal tumors. Mayo Clinic also participates in several regional, national and international cooperative groups and collaborations devoted to cancer research.

Learn more about Mayo Clinic's neurology and neurosurgery departments' expertise and rankings.

Locations, travel and lodging

Mayo Clinic has major campuses in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona; Jacksonville, Florida; and Rochester, Minnesota. The Mayo Clinic Health System has dozens of locations in several states.

For more information on visiting Mayo Clinic, choose your location below:

Costs and insurance

Mayo Clinic works with hundreds of insurance companies and is an in-network provider for millions of people.

In most cases, Mayo Clinic doesn't require a physician referral. Some insurers require referrals or may have additional requirements for certain medical care. All appointments are prioritized on the basis of medical need.

Learn more about appointments at Mayo Clinic.

Please contact your insurance company to verify medical coverage and to obtain any needed authorization prior to your visit. Often, your insurer's customer service number is printed on the back of your insurance card.

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Nov. 14, 2020


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