The primary symptom of bone cancer is pain. It initially comes and goes and might be worse at night. As cancer progresses, the pain worsens and other symptoms develop, such as redness and swelling.
Bone cancer is a rare type of cancer that begins with the growth of a tumor on a bone. The type of bone cancer you have determines where the tumor develops and how fast it grows.
Cancer that has spread to the bone from another location is called “bone metastasis” or secondary bone cancer. This is different than primary bone cancer, which means the tumor originated in the bone.
The primary symptom of bone cancer is bone pain that gets worse as the cancer progresses.
This article takes a closer look at all the symptoms of bone cancer, how they’re managed, and how bone cancer is typically detected and diagnosed.
Bone cancer symptoms can vary depending on the type of bone cancer you have and the location of your tumor.
Pain is the primary symptom that occurs in all types of bone cancer and is the symptom that typically appears the earliest. At first, this pain might come and go and might be mild. It might also get worse at night.
As bone cancer progresses, you might have additional symptoms. These can include:
- Increased pain: Pain normally worsens and becomes more constant as bone cancer progresses.
- Redness and swelling: Tumor growth can cause inflammation and swelling.
- A visible lump: As the tumor grows, you might be able to see it under your skin.
- Fractures and weak bones: Tumor growth weakens the bone. This can lead to fractures.
- Loss of appetite: As is true with many cancers, you might lose your appetite as bone cancer progresses.
- Fatigue: As with any cancer or other major illness, bone cancer can leave you feeling fatigued.
You might have additional symptoms if your tumor is in certain locations. For instance, some bone cancer tumors press on nerves and cause tingling and numbness. Other bone cancer tumors can grow in the neck and cause difficulty swallowing.
When should you seek medical help?
Bone cancer is rare, and its symptoms are shared with many other, less serious, conditions, such as arthritis in adults or growing pains in children. However, it’s always best to see a doctor if you have any symptoms that could be bone cancer.
Early detection is important and can improve treatment outcomes.
Different types of bone cancer often begin in different bones. Your initial symptoms of pain and swelling will first be felt from where your cancer is located.
In the four primary types of bone cancer, common tumor locations include:
- Osteosarcoma: Osteosarcoma tumors are most likely to start at the ends of large bones, typically in the arms or the legs.
- Ewing sarcoma: Ewing sarcoma tumors are most likely to start in the legs, hips, ribs, or shoulder blades.
- Chondrosarcoma: Chondrosarcoma tumors grow in cartilage and are most likely to begin in the arms, legs, or pelvic bones.
- Chordoma: Chordoma tumors begin in the spine, typically at the base of the skull or the bottom of the spine.
In addition, many kinds of pain medications are available to treat bone cancer, including steroids (prednisone or dexathemasone). These steroids are anti-inflammatory and can help relieve pain that is due to inflammation from the cancer.
Pain medications can come in the form of pills, patches, and pumps. Patches and pumps can direct the pain medication to where you need it most.
Doctors can also prescribe the following medications which help promote the strengthening of bones to decrease the chance of fracture:
- pamidronate (Aredia)
- zoledronic acid (Zometa)
- denosumab (Xgeva)
Pain from bone cancer is different for everyone, depending on its location, stage, and type. Be sure to share with your doctor what you’re feeling and work with them to develop a pain management plan.
Bone cancer is most often diagnosed with a combination of tests. These tests can help doctors confirm the cancer and determine its stage. Tests typically include:
- X-rays: X-rays are often the first test you’ll have. They provide detailed images of your bones.
- MRIs and CT scans: MRIs and CT scans are imaging tests that provide doctors with more information about the affected bone and the tumor. They can help determine the size and location of tumors and assist with staging.
- Biopsy: A biopsy confirms a bone cancer diagnosis and subclassifies the type of bone cancer it is. A biopsy can also provide important information, such as how aggressive the cancer is. It’s done by removing a sample of the bone so it can be examined for cancer cells in a lab. You can read more about biopsies here.
Bone cancer is a rare cancer type that begins with tumor growth on a bone. Tumors can grow on any bone, but common sites include bones of the arms, legs, shoulders, hips, pelvis, rib cage, and spine.
The primary symptom of bone cancer is pain that might come and go or get worse at night. Additional symptoms can include redness and swelling, a visible lump beneath the skin, and easy fractures.