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Bone cancer

What is bone cancer?

Bone cancer is a malignant (cancerous) tumor of the bone that destroys normal bone tissue. Not all bone tumors are malignant. In fact, benign (noncancerous) bone tumors are more common than malignant ones. Both malignant and benign bone tumors may grow and compress healthy bone tissue, but benign tumors do not spread, do not destroy bone tissue, and are rarely a threat to life.

Malignant tumors that begin in bone tissue are called primary bone cancer. Cancer that metastasizes (spreads) to the bones from other parts of the body, such as the breast, lung or prostate, is called metastatic cancer, and is named for the organ or tissue in which it began. Primary bone cancer is far less common than cancer that spreads to the bones.

What are the risk factors for bone cancer?

Unfortunately, there is no known way to reduce bone cancer risk. People who are at higher risk for this cancer include:

  • Those who have been treated previously for cancer with radiation therapy or chemotherapy
  • Individuals with pre-existing bone defects or syndromes such as Paget’s disease
  • Individuals with certain genetically linked disorders such as retinoblastoma

What are the symptoms of bone cancer?

Pain is the most common symptom of bone cancer, but not all bone cancers cause pain. Persistent or unusual pain or swelling in or near a bone can be caused by cancer or by other conditions. It is important to see a doctor to determine the cause.

How is bone cancer diagnosed?

To help diagnose bone cancer, the doctor asks about the patient’s personal and family medical history. The doctor also performs a physical examination and may order laboratory and other diagnostic tests. These tests may include the following:

  • X-rays: X-rays can show the location, size and shape of a bone tumor. If X-rays suggest that an abnormal area may be cancer, the doctor is likely to recommend special imaging tests. Even if X-rays suggest that an abnormal area is benign, the doctor may want to do further tests, especially if the patient is experiencing unusual or persistent pain.
  • Bone scan: A test in which a small amount of radioactive material is injected into a blood vessel and travels through the bloodstream; it then collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.
  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan: A series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles, that are created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): A powerful magnet linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body without using X-rays.
  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan: A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein, and a scanner is used to make detailed, computerized pictures of areas inside the body where the glucose is used. Because cancer cells often use more glucose than normal cells, the pictures can be used to find cancer cells in the body.
  • Angiogram: An X-ray of blood vessels.
  • Biopsy: The removal of a tissue sample from the bone tumor which is then examined to determine whether it is cancerous.
  • Blood tests: Used to determine the level of an enzyme called alkaline phosphatase. A large amount of this enzyme is present in the blood when the cells that form bone tissue are very active – when children are growing, when a broken bone is mending, or when a disease or tumor causes production of abnormal bone tissue.

How is bone cancer treated?

Treatment options depend on the type, size, location and stage of the cancer, as well as the person’s age and general health.

Treatment options for bone cancer include:

  • Surgery is the usual treatment for bone cancer. The surgeon removes the entire tumor with negative margins (no cancer cells are found at the edge or border of the tissue removed during surgery). The surgeon may also use special surgical techniques to minimize the amount of healthy tissue removed with the tumor.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Patients who have bone cancer usually receive a combination of anticancer drugs. However, chemotherapy is not currently used to treat chondrosarcoma.
  • Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, involves the use of high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. This treatment may be used in combination with surgery.
  • Cryosurgery is the use of liquid nitrogen to freeze and kill cancer cells. This technique can sometimes be used instead of conventional surgery to destroy the tumor.

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