Bone metastases occur when cancer that starts in another part of the body spreads to the bones.

Bone is a living, changing thing. Healthy bone cells are always undergoing the process of breaking down and rebuilding.

There are two types of bone cells:

  • osteoclasts
  • osteoblasts

Osteoclasts break down old bones, and osteoblasts build new bones.

When cancer spreads to the bones, it interferes with the action of these cells. It causes pain and makes bones more likely to break.

It can also lead to problems with calcium balance in the body or nerve damage if the cancer causes the bone to press on the spinal cord.

There’s no cure, but treatment can help prevent or slow the spread and help relieve accompanying symptoms.

Here are the answers to several common questions about bone metastases.

In advanced stages of cancer, the cancer may spread to bones. This is known as bone metastases.

There’s no cure for bone metastases. But treatments can help:

  • prevent or slow the progression of the cancer
  • strengthen bones
  • alleviate symptoms like bone pain

The earlier the bone metastases are caught, the better. Talk with your cancer care team if you experience any new or changing symptoms.

Routine blood work may help catch cancer that’s spread to bones. In early stages, it can spot changes in the amount of calcium or red blood cells in your blood.

Metastatic bone cancer is most likely to occur with breast, prostate, or lung cancer. More recent treatment advances for these cancers are helping to improve outcomes, so people are living longer.

But living longer with cancer increases the chances that the cancer will spread to other parts of the body. One 2018 study found that 70 percent of those with prostate or breast cancer will have metastasis to the bone.

Survival rates for cancer that’s spread to the bones depend on the primary cancer diagnosis.

According to findings from a 2017 study, rates are highest in someone with breast cancer and lowest for someone with lung cancer.

Study results are below:

Metastatic cancer type1-year survival3-year survival5-year survival
Breast cancer51 percent25 percent13 percent
Prostate cancer35 percent12 percent6 percent
Lung cancer10 percent2 percent1 percent

Support from palliative care is an option that many people choose. The goal of palliative care is to help improve your quality of life. Palliative care focuses on managing your symptoms and supporting your emotional health.

You can still undergo cancer treatment with palliative care. You may request palliative care at any stage of your cancer journey. A specialized palliative care team can work together with the rest of your cancer care team.

Treatment is individualized and will depend on a number of factors. For starters, you may need ongoing treatment for the primary cancer.

Treating bone metastases is often aimed at:

  • maintaining bone structure
  • preventing fractures and bone breaks
  • managing pain

Some common treatments include:

  • Pain medications. Pain management is an important part of your metastatic bone cancer treatment. Options include anti-inflammatories, medications for nerve pain, and opioids, which can be taken orally or intravenously. Talk with your doctor about the best types and doses to manage your pain.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation is one of the primary treatments used to destroy cancer cells and reduce tumor size. External radiation is used to target a single area of bone cancer. It has been shown to help reduce pain by 80 to 90 percent, according to another 2017 study. Intravenous radiation is used if the cancer has spread to multiple bone sites.
  • Bisphosphonates. These are medications that slow down how quickly bone breaks down. As a result, they can help alleviate bone pain and prevent broken bones. They’re available as oral or injectable medications.
  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs target cancer cells to destroy them or slow their growth. Shrinking the tumors can help reduce symptoms like bone pain.
  • Surgery. In some cases, surgery is used to support damaged bones. Metal plates and screws can help give structure and stability to bones. Or a cement-like mixture can be added to the spine to help stabilize affected bones.
  • Alternative therapies. Research has found that incorporating options like music therapy, hypnosis, and acupuncture into your treatment plan may actually help reduce pain. Options like mindfulness, meditation, and massage can also be used to help relieve anxiety and boost mood.

It’s normal to want to know survival outcomes. But it’s impossible to predict how long someone may live after a diagnosis of metastatic bone cancer.

There are many variables, including:

  • the original cancer diagnosis
  • your age
  • any other health conditions you may have
  • whether the cancer has spread to other areas

Talk with your cancer care team about your individual circumstances and what to expect. It’s never too early or late to get connected with a palliative care team.

Cancer can spread from one site to another. When it spreads to the bones, it’s known as bone metastases.

Bone metastases can’t be cured, but treatments can help:

  • prevent or slow their progression
  • strengthen bones
  • provide relief for symptoms like bone pain