Back to Document

What Is Primary Bone Cancer?

To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, it helps to know how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow and multiply when your body needs them, and die out when your body does not need them.

Anatomy of a bone
Click Image to Enlarge

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow whether they are needed or not. Bone cancer is cancer that begins in your bones. It is also called primary bone cancer.

Primary bone cancer is different from secondary, or metastatic, bone cancer, which starts in other parts of the body and later spreads to the bones. If the cancer starts somewhere else, it is not called bone cancer. Instead, it keeps the name of the organ from which it spread. Lung cancer that spreads to the bone is still called lung cancer, for example. Leukemia is a different type of cancer that begins in the bone marrow; it is considered a blood cancer, not a bone cancer. Almost all types of cancer can spread to bone. But primary bone cancers are quite rare. They are more common in children and adolescents than in adults. This section deals only with primary bone cancer.

Primary bone tumors can be noncancerous (called benign) or cancerous (called malignant). Benign tumors don’t spread and are not life-threatening. They are generally removed with surgery. Cancerous tumors can spread and can be life-threatening. Benign bone tumors occur more often than cancerous bone tumors.

Types of primary bone cancer

Primary bone cancers are called sarcomas. Sarcomas can grow from bone, cartilage, fatty tissue, fibrous tissue, muscle, or nerve tissue.

These are the types of bone cancer you can have:

  • Osteosarcoma. This is the most common primary bone cancer. It usually starts inside the bone and grows through the bone into the surrounding tissues. It starts near where new bone is made. Most people who get this cancer are between ages 10 and 30. But it can occur at any age. It tends to be more common in males than in females. Most tumors occur near the knee, pelvis, or shoulder, but they can occur in any bone.

  • Chondrosarcoma. This is the second most common primary bone cancer. This cancer most often occurs in adults ages 50 and older, and it is equally common in men and women. The cancer develops in cartilage cells and is most common around the hip and pelvic bones; however, it can occur in any bone and can also affect the ribs.

  • Ewing sarcoma. This cancer affects mainly children and teenagers. It is also referred to as Ewing tumor. Most Ewing tumors start in bone, but they can also occur in the soft tissues of the limbs, such as in muscles. Ewing sarcoma usually occurs in the thigh bone, pelvis, or chest wall, but can occur in any bone.

  • Fibrosarcoma and malignant fibrous histiocytoma. These cancers are most commonly found in soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons, fat, and muscle around bone, but they can develop in bones. They usually affect the legs, arms, or jaw. Older adults are most likely to get these types of cancers.

  • Giant cell tumors of bone. These tumors are almost always benign, but in rare instances, can be cancerous. They most often occur around the knee or shoulder and occasionally other bones. They most commonly affect adults between ages 20 and 40. They don't often spread to other sites, but have a tendency to return after they are surgically removed. With each recurrence, the chances of the cancer spreading to other parts of the body increases. There is also soft tissue tumor called Giant Cell Tumor, which is not related to this bone tumor.

  • Chordoma. This type of tumor usually grows at the base of the skull or in the sacrum (the bottom of the spine). Less often, it occurs in other parts of the spine. It is most common in adults ages 30 and older and is almost twice as common in men than in women.