Bone Cancer Facts
Bone cancer is a malignant tumor of the bone that destroys normal bone cells. Primary bone cancer is rare. The majority of people who have cancer in their bones have a secondary bone cancer. This means that the cancer in their bones develop from the spread, also known as a metastasis, from another cancer which developed elsewhere in their body. Bone cancer refers to the cases in which the cancer starts in the bone cells and does not include cancers that have spread to the bones. Secondary or metastatic bone cancer may be properly referred to as a carcinoma based upon where it first arose. Primary bone cancers are called sarcomas.
Bone cancer is most common in children and adolescents. It is less common in older adults. There are several different types of bone cancer, and they can occur in any of the bones.
Types of Bone Cancer
- Osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone cancer. It is most common in males between 10-25 years of age, but it can also occur in older adults. The most likely locations for developing osteosarcoma are in the long bones of the arms and legs near the growth regions of the knees and shoulders. This is often a very aggressive cancer, and it can spread (metastasize) to the lungs.
- Ewing's sarcoma is a very aggressive bone cancer. It is more common in younger children between 4-15 years old. It is more common in boys and very rarely seen in those over 30 years of age. It is most commonly found in the middle portions of the long bones in the arms and legs. It can also spread to the lungs and other body tissues.
- Chondrosarcoma is the second most common bone cancer. In contrast to the previously described tumors, chondrosarcoma develops from the cartilage cells, not from the bone cells themselves. The pelvis and the hip and shoulder bones are most commonly affected. It is most common in people over 40 years of age. It can also spread to the lungs and lymphatic system.
- Malignant fibrous histiocytoma (MFH) is a rare type of cancer which more commonly arises from soft tissues than from bone. When it arises in bone, it is treated as though it was an osteosarcoma. It is most common in people 50-60 years old. It is most common in the arms and legs, and is more common in males.
- Fibrosarcoma is a rare soft tissue tumor that most commonly occurs around the knee. It usually affects people 35-55 years old and is more common in males.
- Chordoma is a very rare tumor usually seen in people over 30 years old. It is most commonly found in either the lower or upper ends of the spinal column.
Bone Cancer Causes
In most cases, the cause of bone cancer is unknown. Most cancers begin with an error or mutation in the bone cell DNA, the control region and building blocks of the cells. Changes in the cellular DNA can lead to problems with the cells dividing and multiplying into new cells, potentially causing an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells.
There are certain known risk factors for developing some types of bone cancer. Osteosarcoma is more common in people who have received radiation therapy or treatment with certain chemotherapy medications. Osteosarcoma is also more common in children who have had hereditary retinoblastoma, which is a rare cancer of the eye. Ewing's sarcoma is more common in children with hereditary cancer syndromes, including Li-Fraumeni syndrome or Rothmund-Thomson syndrome, multiple exostoses, or other bone conditions, including Paget's disease of bone.
Bone Cancer Symptoms and Signs
The most common symptom of bone cancer is pain. The pain often starts off as a dull ache that gradually worsens over time. The pain may initially only occur at night or with specific activities. If the tumor weakens the bone, it may lead to a fracture that can cause more sudden and severe pain. A lump or mass over the surface of the bone may be felt or seen through the patient's skin.
Other less common bone cancer symptoms and signs include:
When to Seek Medical Care for Bone Cancer
You should seek medical care if you have a new pain in your bones that does not resolve or worsens over time, if you have a sudden and more severe pain in your bones, or if you see or feel a mass over your bones.
Medical definition of Bone cancer
A malignancy of bone. Primary bone cancer (cancer that begins in bone) is rare, but it is not unusual for cancers to metastasize (spread) to bone from other parts of the body, such as the breast, lung, and prostate. The most common type of primary bone cancer is osteosarcoma, which develops in new tissue in growing bones. Another type of cancer, chondrosarcoma, arises in cartilage. Ewing's sarcoma begins in immature nerve tissue in bone marrow. Osteosarcoma and Ewing's sarcoma tend to occur in children and adolescents, and chondrosarcoma occurs most often in adults. Pain is the most frequent symptom of primary and metastatic cancer in bone. Bone cancer can also interfere with normal movements and can weaken the bones, leading to fractures. Diagnosis of bone cancer is supported by findings of the medical history and examination, blood tests (including measuring the level of the enzyme for the enzyme alkaline phosphatase), and X-ray studies, and it is confirmed by a biopsy. Treatment depends on the type, location, size, and extent of the tumor. Surgery is often the primary treatment. Although amputation of a limb is sometimes necessary for primary bone cancer, chemotherapy has made limb-sparing surgery possible in many cases. Radiation may also be used.
Bone Cancer Diagnosis
Your physician will likely begin with a complete medical history, family history, and physical examination. The purpose of the medical and family history is to determine how your symptoms developed and how they have changed over time. These clues can help your physician diagnose bone cancer versus some other potential cause of your symptoms. The physical examination will evaluate the area of pain or mass, and check your strength, sensation, and reflexes.
Certain blood tests may be ordered that can help with the diagnosis. Alkaline phosphatase and lactate dehydrogenase are often elevated in the blood of patients with osteosarcoma and Ewing's sarcoma.
Next, the physician will likely order some imaging study of the affected bone. Plain X-rays or radiographs can often identify abnormalities in the bones and provide information on the shape, size, and location of the tumor.
- X-rays can also look for possible fractures and asses the risk of future fracture. A bone scan involves injecting a small amount of a radioactive material into the blood that collects in the bones.
- The bone scan can identify areas of increased bone activity that can occur with fracture, growth, and tumors. It can be used to localize a bone cancer and look for other areas of involvement.
- A computed tomography (CT) scan can provide a three-dimensional picture of the bones that can provide a better view of the cancer.
- A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan may be ordered to evaluate the soft tissues or bones involved by a cancer.
- A positron emission tomography (PET) scan involves injecting a small amount of radioactive glucose into the bloodstream and scanning the entire body to look for other areas of increased bone activity. This scan can often be combined with the CT scan for improved detail.
After an abnormality has been identified in the bone, your physician may want to obtain a biopsy of the bone. This involves taking a small piece of the bone that can be studied by a pathologist to determine what type of cancer is present. Depending on the location of the cancer, the biopsy may be obtained in the office with a small needle or may need to be obtained in the operating room by a surgeon.
Staging of Bone Cancer
The stage of the cancer refers to the extent of spread of the cancer. Based on the various imaging studies and biopsy, your physician can determine how aggressive the cancer is and whether or not it has spread from its initial location to other locations in the body.
Stage I: The cancer is all contained within the bone and has not spread to other areas of the body.
Stage II: The cancer is contained within the bone and has not spread, but the biopsy shows the cancer is more aggressive.
Stage III: The cancer has spread to more than one area within the bone, but it has not spread outside of the bone.
Stage IV: The cancer has spread outside of the bone to other areas of the body.
Bone Cancer Treatment
Treatment for bone cancer depends on the type of cancer, the location of the tumor, and the stage of the cancer. The main types of treatment include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. In some cases, a combination of one or more of these treatments may be recommended.
Surgery is the most common treatment for bone cancer. The goal of surgery is to remove the entire area of cancer and a surrounding layer of normal bone to help prevent recurrence of the cancer. Depending on the amount of bone removed, the surgeon my replace some of the bone with other normal bone grafts, bone cement, or artificial joints. The specimen that is removed during surgery is studied by the pathologist to verify that a complete layer of normal bone cells surrounds the cancer. If the cancer is not completely removed with a layer of normal cells surrounding it, there is a higher risk of leaving behind some cancer cells that can continue to grow in the body. In this case, your physician may recommend an additional surgery or another treatment. In some cases, the surgery cannot remove the entire cancer with a surrounding layer of normal tissue. This may be due to surrounding nerves or blood vessels that cannot be removed. In some of these cases, an amputation of the involved limb may be necessary to completely remove the cancer.
Chemotherapy may be used in some cases of bone cancer. The medications are used to help kill the cancer cells. It may be used to help shrink the cancer cells prior to surgery to allow for a less extensive surgery. It may be used after surgery to help kill any remaining cancer cells left behind following surgery. Research is defining roles for both immune system-based treatments as well as a molecular targeted therapies in the treatment of even advanced metastatic case of bone cancer.
Radiation therapy involves using high energy X-ray beams to help kill the cancer cells. This is often given through a series of treatments over weeks or months. As with chemotherapy, radiation therapy can be used either before or after surgery.
Bone Cancer Follow-up
Follow-up with your physician following a diagnosis and treatment of bone cancer is very important. You will likely have routine appointments and imaging and laboratory studies to look for any recurrence of the cancer. Any change in your symptoms should prompt a visit with your physician for evaluation.
Bone Cancer Prevention
At this time, there are no specific methods of prevention of bone cancer.
Bone Cancer Prognosis
The outlook for patients with bone cancer is improving. Many recent advancements in the early diagnosis and treatment options are improving the survival rates from these cancers. Improved surgical options have decreased the need for amputation in some cases. Improved chemotherapy and radiation therapy have also decreased the related side effects of these treatments.
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Reviewed on 11/20/2017
Medically reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Medical Oncology
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