Bone cancer is a malignant (cancerous) tumor of the bone that destroys normal bone tissue. About 2,300 new cases of primary bone cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. "Primary" refers to bone cancer that actually begins in the bones. Sometimes, cancer from another tissue, such as the breast, lung, or prostate, can spread to the bones. But in that case, the cancer is still named for the organ or tissue in which it originated.

What Are the Different Types of Bone Tumors?

Bone tumors are named for the area of bone or surrounding tissue that is affected and the kinds of cells that form the tumor. Some of the most common malignant bone tumors include:

  • Osteosarcoma

    Occurring most often in young people between the ages of 10 and 25, osteosarcoma usually arises in the knee and upper arm.
  • Chondrosarcoma

    This type of cancer, most common after age 50, begins in the tissue of cartilage typically found in the leg (femur), arm, pelvis, knee, or spine, although it can vary in size and location.
  • Ewing

    Sarcoma Family of Tumors (ESFTs). These types of cancers generally originate in bone but may also begin in muscle, fat, or blood vessels. Most often affecting patients between the ages of 4 and 15, ESFTs usually occur along the backbone and pelvis and in the legs and arms.

What Are the Symptoms of Bone Cancer?

Pain is the most common symptom of bone cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. At first, the pain comes and goes, and may be worse at night or when the bone is used. As the cancer grows, though, the pain becomes constant. Other possible symptoms include:

  • Weakened bones, sometimes leading to fractures;
  • Joint swelling and tenderness (for tumors in or near joints);
  • Fatigue;
  • Fever;
  • Unintended weight loss; and
  • Anemia.

How Is Bone Cancer Diagnosed?

Doctors can use several methods to detect bone cancer. In most cases, a biopsy is needed for confirmation since other diseases can cause similar symptoms. Typical tests include:

  • X-ray

    An X-ray can show the location, size, and shape of a bone tumor. If an X-ray suggests that an abnormal area may be cancer, the doctor is likely to recommend additional tests.
  • Computed Tomography (CT or CAT) scan

    In this test, many X-rays of the body are taken from different angles. The images are then combined to produce cross-sectional pictures of internal organs.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

    An MRI scan uses radio waves and strong magnets to provide detailed images of the body.
  • Biopsy

    This test involves obtaining a tiny piece of the tumor and examining it under a microscope for signs of cancer. A needle biopsy uses a needle to remove a small amount of fluid and tissue fragments, while a surgical bone biopsy requires an incision to be made in the skin to remove a small part of the tumor for further testing.

How Is Bone Cancer Treated?

Treatment options for bone cancer depend on the type, size, location, and stage of the cancer, as well as the person's age and general health. Common options include:

  • Surgery

    Surgery is the most common treatment for bone cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Surgery for bone cancer that hasn't spread far involves removing the cancer and a rim of healthy bone surrounding it. In the past, amputation was common for bone cancer in an arm or leg, but thanks to advances in surgical techniques, limbs can usually be spared.
  • Radiation

    This method involves treating cancer with beams of high-energy particles, or radiation waves. Although radiation can affect healthy cells as well as cancer cells, it's much more harmful to cancer cells. In addition, normal cells can recover from the effects of radiation more easily than cancer cells can.
  • Chemotherapy

    While surgery and radiation help to remove, destroy, or damage cancer cells in a specific area, chemotherapy works throughout the entire body, destroying cancer cells that may have spread from their original location. As a result, healthy cells are affected, too, so it's common for patients to experience side effects such as nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and increased risk of infection. Some types of bone cancer respond to chemotherapy better than others.

Looking Ahead

There has been great progress in the understanding and treatment of bone cancer in the last 30 years, according to the American Cancer Society.

These findings have led to more focused radiation therapy to slow or stop it from spreading, better combinations of chemotherapy with less risk and fewer side effects, and improved treatment options, including limb-salvaging surgery, that decrease the need for amputation.

What's more, several clinical trials are experimenting with ways to combine surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, while other researchers are making progress in learning about the exact cause of bone tumors.