Bone Cancer

What is bone cancer?

Bone cancer is growth of abnormal cells that form tumors in the bones. The cancer damages or destroys bones, nerves, blood vessels, and other tissues. If cancer cells get into the bloodstream, they can spread to other parts of your body and affect healthy organs, usually the lungs.

When cancer starts in the bone, it is called primary bone cancer. The three main types of primary bone cancer are:

  • Osteogenic sarcoma, which usually affects the long bones. This is the most common bone cancer that affects young people.
  • Ewing’s sarcoma, which most often starts in the pelvic or upper leg bones. This cancer also affects young people, but less often than osteogenic sarcoma.
  • Chondrosarcoma, which affects the soft pads at the ends of bones (cartilage). This type of bone cancer is most often found in the hipbones, shoulders or at the ends of large bones, especially near the knee. Chondrosarcoma is rare and usually affects adults.

Bone cancer can be life threatening. The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

Primary bone cancer is rare in adults. Adults are more at risk for primary bone cancer if they:

  • Were exposed to high doses of radiation, usually for a prior cancer in that area
  • Have Paget’s disease of the bones

Usually bone cancer starts from somewhere else in your body and spreads to your bones. This type of bone cancer is called secondary or metastatic bone cancer. The most common places where a cancer starts before spreading to the bones are the lungs, women’s breasts, men’s prostate gland, and the kidneys.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in a bone or joint
  • Swelling, especially near joints

Sometimes cancer can make the bones thicker than normal. This is seen most often in cancer that has spread from the prostate.

It is more common for the affected bones to have holes in them from the cancer. The holes weaken the bones. The bones may be fragile and may break, even without a fall or other trauma. A broken bone may be the first sign of bone cancer.

Bone cancer of the spine may collapse or crush the bones of the spine. This may damage the spinal cord, causing weakness or even paralysis.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history, including pain and swelling in your bones or joints, and you will have a physical exam. You may have tests such as:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • X-rays of the bones
  • A bone biopsy, which uses a needle passed through the skin to take a small sample of bone tissue for testing
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the bones
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the bones
  • PET scan, which is a series of detailed pictures that are taken after your healthcare provider injects a small amount of radioactive material into your blood. The scan shows areas where the radioactive material is being absorbed.

How is it treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

If the cancer started somewhere else in the body and then spread to the bones, you will be treated for the cancer where it started, such as breast cancer or lung cancer. Surgery to remove diseased bone is the most common treatment for primary bone cancer.

Other possible treatments are:

  • Radiation treatments to shrink the tumor, slow its growth, and relieve the pain
  • Hormone therapy if the cancer started in the breast or prostate gland
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • Medicine to slow bone damage and strengthen bones
  • A metal piece put into a weakened bone to strengthen it
  • Rarely, surgery to remove hormone-producing organs (ovaries or testes) when there is cancer in the bones due to the spread of cancer from the breast or prostate

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Often, more than 1 treatment is used. After treatment, you will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with bone cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you smoke, try to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of radiation, hormone, or chemotherapy treatments recommended by your healthcare provider
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous signs or symptoms or develop any new ones.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-04-28
Last reviewed: 2014-04-28
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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