Tumors of the spine and spinal cord are relatively uncommon. The most common initial symptom that patients with a spinal tumor have is pain. Because back pain is very common, it is also not a specific symptom of any one disease or medical condition. Spinal cord tumors can be either primary (originating in the spinal cord) or secondary (metastases of cancer that originated elsewhere in the body). Therefore, the challenge is to determine how to evaluate back pain with the goal of specifically excluding a tumor as the cause of the pain. Luckily, most back pain is not due to a tumor. However, if a cancer were discovered after a long period of "conservative" management of back pain, most patients would feel that their problem should have been investigated more thoroughly in the beginning.
Doctors use the term "benign" to indicate that a particular tumor is unlikely to spread to others parts of the body. Benign tumors can still be a significant problem however, depending upon their location, size, adjacent structures, blood supply, and other factors. Fortunately, most benign tumors can be treated successfully.
Doctors use the term "malignant" to indicate that a particular tumor or a cancer often spreads to other parts of the body, and can be difficult to cure or treat. This is very different from "benign" cancers, which are much less likely to spread, are easier to treat and control.