Bone Cancer: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

This information is useful for children and adults
a woman touching her shoulder/bone, possibly in response to a diagnosis of bone cancer

Our bones are made up of two basic types of cells—osteoblasts, which create and maintain new bone, and osteoclasts, which dissolve old bone. Normally, bone cells know when to grow and when to stop growing. But sometimes, abnormal bone cells develop and grow at an uncontrolled rate, forming a tumor. Most bone tumors are benign (not cancerous), but a few are cancerous. Known as primary bone cancers, these are quite rare, accounting for less than 0.2 percent of all cancers. The majority of cases of cancer involving bone are metastatic, meaning the disease has spread to the bones from another place in the body.

Treatment for bone cancer depends on the type of tumor, whether it is primary or metastatic, and the extent of the tumor, and often includes some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

“Our ability to accurately diagnosis and successfully treat bone tumors has tremendously improved,” says Gary Elliott Friedlaender, MD, a Yale Medicine orthopedic oncologist, “based on innovative research and clinical trials, along with the skill and experience of our team.”

Primary bone cancers are also called sarcomas. Osteosarcoma—the most common type of primary bone cancer—generally develops in children and young adults, forming in one of the long bones of the arm or leg. About 10 percent of cases occur in older patients, including some who have a condition called Paget’s disease.

There are other types of bone tumors. Ewing sarcoma develops in children and young adults, whereas chondrosarcoma (cancer arising from cartilage cells) tends to occur in people older than 40. These cancers can start in the pelvis, shoulder, arm, leg or another bone site in the body. Although multiple myeloma is not considered to be a primary bone cancer (it arises in the marrow space inside bones), it can still damage the bones and cause bone pain, fractures and loss of function.