Bone cancer, also called bone neoplasm, isn't the most common type of cancer, but the various types are aggressive and usually start as another form of cancer that's spread to the body's bones.
This type of cancer is very rare, making up only about 1% of all cancer diagnoses yearly. In 2022, the American Cancer Society estimates about 3,910 new cases but over 2,000 deaths, making this a very deadly form of cancer.
There are several types of bone cancers. The most common type of bone cancer is osteosarcoma, primarily affecting people from ten to 30 years old. A few other types of bone cancer are Ewing sarcoma, fibrosarcoma of the bone, giant cell tumor of the bone, and chondrosarcoma. Each bone cancer is a little different and has different treatment protocols.
Like other cancers, bone cancer develops when cancerous cells multiply at an alarming rate. While specific causes of bone cancer are unknown, they're often linked to hereditary issues and radiation exposure.
Some things increase your risk of developing bone cancer, like inherited genetic syndromes. Hereditary retinoblastoma and LiFraumeni Syndrome can increase the likelihood of bone cancer growing in your body.
Paget's Disease of the Bone is also a risk factor for bone cancer. While this usually occurs in older adults, it can cause bone cancers to develop years later. If you've had another type of cancer, the cancerous cells can spread to the bones. If you had cancer and treated it with radiation, it's possible that radiation can cause bone cancer later in life.
Several warning signs might mean you have bone cancer. While they don't always indicate this rare type of cancer, they're worth knowing so you can pay attention. These are the main symptoms of bone cancer:
- Constant bone pain that worsens over time and continues day and night
- Swelling and redness on a bone
- Difficulty moving a bone due to inflammation
- Noticeable lumps on a bone
- Weak bones that break or fracture easier than they should
- Difficulty walking or limping
- Numbness and weakness in the legs
- Trouble urinating or having bowel movements due to nerve problems
- Numbness in the stomach
- Back pain
- Loss of appetite
- Exhaustion and confusion
- Excessive thirst
Something important to remember is that bone or joint pain doesn't immediately mean that you have bone cancer. Bone and joint pain could just be inflammation, arthritis, or another condition that's not related to cancer. The same goes for the rest of the symptoms. They don't immediately mean bone cancer.
The best thing you can do is talk to your doctor as soon as possible to rule out bone cancer. If it happens to be bone cancer, getting started with the appropriate and decided upon treatment as quickly as possible is necessary.
Who Gets It
Anyone can get bone cancer, just like any other type. That being said, certain groups of people tend to get bone cancer more than others. The two most common types of bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma, and osteosarcoma, typically occur in children and young adults. Osteosarcoma is much more common in men than women, but women can still get it.
Those who have had other types of cancer, previously or currently, are also more prone to getting bone cancer. If cancer goes undetected, it can spread to the bones. Also, if you underwent radiation treatment for another type of cancer, this increases your chances of developing bone cancer later on.
How to Prevent
What Research Says
If you're one of the few thousand people a year who receive a bone cancer diagnosis, the outlook depends very much on which bone the cancer is on, how far it's spread, the likelihood that it will spread further, and your age.
Besides limiting your radiation exposure, there's nothing you can change about your lifestyle or environment that can prevent you from getting bone cancer. Some suggest that lifestyle modifications that can help prevent other types of cancer can help prevent bone cancer.
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Tests & Diagnosis
How is it given?
If you or your doctor suspect you have bone cancer, there are several tests they can perform that can help lead them to an accurate diagnosis. Here are a few of the ways they test for bone cancer:
- Bone Scan: Bone scans can find bone metastasis earlier than a traditional X-ray. The scan assesses your entire skeleton so they can check all the bones in your body at once. They'll put a tracer into your blood, which is attracted to diseased bone cells, allowing the potentially cancerous areas to appear clearly on the scan.
- X-Rays: This imaging is a great tool to see if cancer has spread to your bones. It helps show the size and shape of any bone tumors.
- Lab Tests: Blood tests are always performed when considering a cancer diagnosis. They can help see if you have higher calcium and enzyme levels than usual. High levels of these two substances don't immediately signal bone cancer. That's why imaging is an integral part of the process.
- Biopsy: A more invasive test is a bone biopsy. They'll take a small piece of bone and test it for cancerous cells. This step is taken when imaging suggests there might be cancer but cannot confirm one way or another.
- MRI: Doctors can use an MRI to scan for bone cancer. It uses radio waves and magnets to get pictures of your tissues and bones. This test is beneficial if they're looking at your joints, spine, and spinal cord for cancerous cells.
- PET Scan: Before a PET scan, healthcare professionals will put radioactive sugar in your blood that the cancer cells will absorb. The image of your whole body and a camera will take pictures of any radioactive areas in your body. It's not super detailed, but it can find small tumors other imaging might have missed.
CT Scan: CT scans show imaging of any part of the body. It provides a more detailed image than an X-ray and can help see if you have cancer spread to your bones.
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Questions for your doctor