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Bone cancer is an uncommon type of cancer that begins when cells in the bone start to grow out of control or spread from another site into the bone. While bone cancer can develop at any age, it is more common in children, teenagers, and older adults.

Types of Bone Cancer

The term “bone cancer” refers to several different cancers that develop in the bones. The type of bone cancer is determined by how the tissue looks under a microscope.

Primary Bone Cancers

Cancers that form in the bone itself — and do not spread from other organs — are called primary bone cancers. These types of cancers, which are rare, are also known as bone sarcomas.

There are four types of primary bone cancer:

  • Osteosarcoma: This is the most common form of bone cancer, which develops in the cells where new bone tissue forms. It can begin in any bone in the body, but it most commonly affects bones around the knee and shoulder.
  • Ewing sarcoma: Also referred to as Ewing tumors, this type typically develops in bones, but can start in other tissues and organs. The most common sites for this cancer are the pelvis, bones in the chest wall, the spine, and the long bones of the legs.
  • Chondrosarcoma: This forms a cancerous tissue that looks like cartilage. This cancer typically forms in the arms, legs, or pelvis bones. Chondrosarcoma occurs more frequently in adults compared to younger individuals.
  • Chordoma: This very rare tumor originates in the bones of the spine, usually at the tailbone or base of the skull. Chordoma occurs most often in older adults, and it’s about twice as common in men compared to women.

Secondary Bone Cancers

Many tumors that begin in organs or other parts of the body can also spread to the bones. These growths are called secondary, or metastatic, bone cancers. Breast, prostate, kidney, and lung tumors most commonly metastasize (spread) to the bones.

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Causes and Risk Factors

The causes of bone cancer are unknown, however, a small number of bone cancers have been linked to hereditary factors, while others could be related to previous radiation exposure.

Certain risk factors have been identified to increase the likelihood of developing bone cancer, including:

  • Genetics. Certain inherited genetic conditions, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome and hereditary retinoblastoma, can increase the risk of bone cancer.
  • Paget’s disease of bone. A noncancerous bone condition most common in older adults, Paget’s disease of bone can increase the risk of developing bone cancer in the future.
  • Radiation. Exposure to radiation, such as radiation therapy for cancer, can increase one’s risk of bone cancer.

What are the Symptoms?

The most common symptom of bone cancer is a dull ache in the affected bone that might worsen at night or when the bone is used. Eventually, as the cancer grows, the pain will become constant. If your leg is involved, you could begin to limp.

Other more common bone cancer symptoms include:

  • Pain.
  • Swelling and tenderness near the affected area.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weakened bone, leading to fracture.
  • Fever.

Some symptoms depend on the size and location of the tumor. For example, tumors in the spine can lead to numbness or tingling.

If you experience any of these symptoms for a long time without a known reason, you should consult with a physician.

Bone Cancer Diagnosis

A physician may suspect you have bone cancer after conducting a physical exam, listening to your symptoms, and viewing imaging results such as an x-ray, MRI, or CT scan. But other diseases and infections can mimic bone cancer, so it is typically confirmed through a biopsy — an examination of tissue or cells under a microscope.

Treatment Options

If you are diagnosed with bone cancer, you may not need surgery. Bone cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer. The first step after diagnosis is to determine whether the cancer has spread and to what extent.

A customized treatment plan will then be developed, depending on the type, stage, and location of the cancer, as well as your overall health. This plan could include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or surgery.

UPMC Musculoskeletal Oncology Services uses the latest techniques to diagnose and treat cancerous and noncancerous bone and soft tissue tumors. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 412-802-4100.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Orthopaedic Care

When you are dealing with bone, muscle, or joint pain, it can affect your daily life. UPMC Orthopaedic Care can help. As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, we diagnose and treat a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. We provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. Our multidisciplinary team of experts will work with you to develop the treatment plan that works best for you. Our care team uses the most innovative tools and techniques to provide better outcomes. We also are leaders in research and clinical trials, striving to find better ways to provide our patients care. With locations throughout our communities, you can find a provider near you.