What Causes Bone Cancer?

Medically Reviewed By: Suzanne George, MD

Key Takeaways:

  • Cancers that start in the bone (primary bone cancers) are very rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cancers. In most of these cases, the cause of the cancer is unknown.
  • Cancers found in the bone more often originate as tumors in another part of the body and spread (metastasize) to the bone.
  • One form of primary bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma, has changes in the chromosomes of the cancer cells, but the disease is not inherited.

Cancers originating in the bone, called primary bone cancers, are rare and account for less than 1% of all cancers. There are numerous types of primary bone cancers, and in most cases, the cause isn’t known.

Primary bone tumors can have changes in the DNA of the cancer cells, but those DNA changes are acquired during the individual’s lifetime, and are not inherited from a parent. Most primary bone cancers are not hereditary.

For example, one form of primary bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma, is associated with changes in the cancer cell’s chromosomes, but the disease is not inherited, and isn’t passed down from a parent to a child.

Much more common are secondary bone cancers that don’t originate in the bone, but which are the result of tumor cells that have spread from other organs, such as the lungs, breast, or prostate. These metastatic bone cancers have the characteristics of the original cancer from which the tumor cells have spread.

Of the primary bone cancers, the most common are:

  • Osteosarcoma, which mainly affects teenagers and children
  • Ewing sarcoma, affecting mainly patients between 5 and 20
  • Chondrosarcoma, a tumor composed of cartilage-producing cells and most often seen in patients between the ages of 40 and 70.
  • Multiple myeloma, which begins in the bone marrow, is considered a blood cancer, but can also be viewed as a bone cancer since it damages the bone tissue.

Osteosarcoma is a primary bone cancer that usually starts in areas where bone is growing quickly such as near the ends of the leg or arm bones. Few risk factors have been identified for osteosarcoma; one risk factor is radiation therapy for another cancer, which appears to raise the risk of later developing osteosarcoma in the area that was exposed to radiation.

What are the risk factors for primary bone cancer?

People with certain rare, inherited cancer syndromes are at increased risk of developing osteosarcomas. Those syndromes include:

However, the cause of most osteosarcomas is unknown.

Are there screening options for primary bone cancer?

At this time, there are no early detection screening tests for bone cancer (except in cases where the patient is at increased risk because of an inherited syndrome), and there are no specific preventive measures for bone cancer.

Many bone cancers are found at a stage before they have clearly spread to other parts of the body. Bone cancers may be detected when they cause pain or swelling that prompts a visit to a doctor. Pain in the area of the tumor is the most common sign of bone cancer, and over time, the pain can become more constant and might get worse with activity. Sometimes a tumor can weaken a bone to the point that it fractures, causing a sudden increase in pain.

Like other types of cancer, bone cancer can sometimes cause weight loss and fatigue. Sometimes there are no symptoms, and the cancer is found during investigation of another problem.

About the Medical Reviewer

Suzanne George, MD

Dr. George's areas of expertise include soft tissue sarcoma, bone sarcomas, and gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST).

1 thought on “What Causes Bone Cancer?”

  1. Dr. George is a brilliant doctor and delightful person!
    She made my journey through Gist treatments so much easier to tolerate because she explained everything I needed to know, followed by surgery by Dr. Raut–another amazing doctor at DF. I am very fortunate to have had such fantastic care!

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