Bone cancer

Primary bone cancer is a rare type of cancer that begins in the bones. Around 550 new cases are diagnosed each year in the UK.

Signs and symptoms of bone cancer

Bone cancer can affect any bone, but most cases develop in the long bones of the legs or upper arms.

The main symptoms include:

  • persistent bone pain that gets worse over time and continues into the night
  • swelling and redness (inflammation) over a bone, which can make movement difficult if the affected bone is near a joint
  • a noticeable lump over a bone
  • a weak bone that breaks (fractures) more easily than normal

If you or your child are experiencing persistent, severe or worsening bone pain, visit your GP. While it’s highly unlikely to be the result of bone cancer, it does require further investigation.

Types of bone cancer

Some of the main types of bone cancer are:

  • osteosarcoma – the most common type, which mostly affects children and young adults under 20
  • Ewing sarcoma – which most commonly affects people aged between 10 and 20
  • chondrosarcoma – which tends to affect adults aged over 40

Young people can be affected because the rapid growth spurts that occur during puberty may make bone tumours develop.

The above types of bone cancer affect different types of cell. The treatment and outlook will depend on the type of bone cancer you have.

What causes bone cancer?

In most cases, it’s not known why a person develops bone cancer.

You’re more at risk of developing it if you:

  • have had previous exposure to radiation during radiotherapy
  • have a condition known as Paget’s disease of the bone – however, only a very small number of people with Paget’s disease will actually develop bone cancer
  • have a rare genetic condition called Li-Fraumeni syndrome – people with this condition have a faulty version of a gene that normally helps stop the growth of cancerous cells

How bone cancer is treated

Treatment for bone cancer depends on the type of bone cancer you have and how far it has spread.

Most people have a combination of:

  • surgery to remove the section of cancerous bone – it’s often possible to reconstruct or replace the bone that’s been removed, but amputation is sometimes necessary
  • chemotherapy – treatment with powerful cancer-killing medication
  • radiotherapy – where radiation is used to destroy cancerous cells

In some cases of osteosarcoma, a medication called mifamurtide may also be recommended.

Read more about treating bone cancer.

Outlook

The outlook for bone cancer depends on factors such as your age, the type of bone cancer you have, how far the cancer has spread (the stage), and how likely it is to spread further (the grade).

Generally, bone cancer is much easier to cure in otherwise healthy people whose cancer hasn’t spread.

Overall, around 6 in every 10 people with bone cancer will live for at least 5 years from the time of their diagnosis, and many of these may be cured completely.

Bone pain is the most common symptom of bone cancer. Some people experience other symptoms as well.

Bone pain

Pain caused by bone cancer usually begins with a feeling of tenderness in the affected bone. This gradually progresses to a persistent ache or an ache that comes and goes, which continues at night and when resting.

Any bone can be affected, although bone cancer most often develops in the long bones of the legs or upper arms.

The pain can sometimes be wrongly mistaken for arthritis in adults and growing pains in children and teenagers.

Other symptoms

Some people also experience swelling and redness (inflammation) or notice a lump on or around the affected bone. If the bone is near a joint, the swelling may make it difficult to use the joint.

In some cases, the cancer can weaken a bone, causing it to break (fracture) easily after a minor injury or fall.

Less common symptoms can include:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • unexplained weight loss
  • sweating, particularly at night

When to seek medical advice

See your GP if you or your child experiences persistent, severe or worsening bone pain, or if you’re worried about any of the symptoms mentioned above.

While it’s highly unlikely that your symptoms are caused by cancer, it’s best to be sure by getting a proper diagnosis.

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