Managing Treatments

The Two Types of Bone Cancer and Your Treatment Options

The differences between primary and secondary bone cancer don't end with their causes. They're also treated with different strategies.

Bone cancer is fairly uncommon, making up only a small percentage of all cancer cases. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 3,450 new cases of bone cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year.

Bone cancers are grouped into two categories: primary and secondary. Both types of bone cancer can start anywhere in the body, but is more likely to occur in certain bones, like the long bones in your arms and legs.

Both primary and secondary bone cancer affect the cells making up the bone. But, depending on the type of bone cancer you have, your treatment could look very different. After diagnosis, your doctor will help you with a tailored treatment plan to fit your personal needs.

Diagnosing Bone Cancer

For many people, bone pain is one of the first signs of bone cancer. You could also experience bone fractures, swelling and other symptoms like fatigue or weight loss. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may choose to perform one or several diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your symptoms.

As part of your initial work-up, your doctor may recommend a dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan, which measures bone density throughout your body. Losing bone density could signal a more serious problem, like bone cancer, although this isn’t always the case. If your doctor suspects bone cancer, they will recommend further testing, including X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, bone biopsies or blood tests.

Primary Bone Cancer

Primary bone cancer occurs when the cells making up your bones begin to grow out of control. In adults, this condition is rare, only accounting for less than 0.2 percent of all cancers, according to the ACS. You are more likely to develop this type of bone cancer if you have certain inherited genetic diseases, Paget’s disease, or have previously received radiation treatment for another type of cancer.

Fortunately, there are a variety of treatment options available for people with primary bone cancer. Your doctor will develop a treatment plan based off your specific type of cancer and individual needs. Your treatment may include:

  • Surgery to remove the affected bone or tumor
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Gamma knife radiosurgery

Secondary Bone Cancer

Unlike primary bone cancer, secondary bone cancer does not originate in your bones. Instead, this type of cancer, also called bone metastasis, starts in other body tissues, like breast or prostate tissue, and spreads into your bones.

In most cases, secondary bone cancer occurs in the pelvis, spine and thigh bones, says Mayo Clinic. It’s possible for this complication to develop years after you completed treatment for the initial type of cancer. Your risk of developing secondary bone cancer is higher if you’ve had certain cancers before, including breast, lung, prostate and thyroid cancer.

As with primary bone cancer, there are a variety of treatment options for bone metastases. According to Mayo Clinic, your treatment plan may include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Pain medications
  • Steroids
  • Hormone therapy
  • Bone-building medications
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery
  • Procedures using heat or cold to help control pain

Even though there are different types of bone cancer, there’s still hope for finding effective treatment that will allow you to return to the best health possible. Discussing your symptoms and medical history with your doctor is the first step toward finding effective symptom relief. If you’re concerned about any bone symptoms you’re having, talk with your doctor about your unique experience and diagnostic options.

UVA Cancer Center has state-of-the-art technology for diagnosing and treating both primary and secondary bone cancer.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN