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What are the Symptoms of Bone Cancer?

Karyn Maier
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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Primary bone cancer, or cancer that originates in bone, is relatively rare, but occurs more often in children than adults. However, cancer that spreads or metastasizes to bone is much more common across all ages. In fact, some forms of cancer commonly spread to bone, such as thyroid, prostate, lung, or breast cancer. In addition, while cancer may originate from or spread to any bone, the arms and legs are most commonly affected. Where and how the disease manifests generally determines what symptoms of bone cancer may be experienced.

Unlike other cancers that are specific to certain organs and named as such according to its location in the body, bone cancers are generally referred to collectively as sarcomas. However, there are three distinct types of primary bone cancers: chondrosarcoma, which usually affects the cartilage of the pelvis, hip joint, or shoulder; osteosarcoma, which usually occurs in the upper arm or knee; and Ewing’s sarcoma, which typically occurs in the bone or nerve tissue of the legs, arms, pelvis, or backbone. Of these, osteosarcoma and Ewing’s sarcoma are more likely to occur in young people between the ages of 10 and 25 years. Chondrosarcoma, on the other hand, is found almost exclusively in older patients.

Unfortunately, symptoms of bone cancer may not appear in a significant manner until the disease has advanced. In addition, many types of this cancer develop slowly over a long period of time, which may prompt the patient to attribute his or her symptoms to an age-related condition instead, such as arthritis. Other factors that influence the signs of bone cancer are its specific location and tumor size.

The most commonly reported symptom is general pain in the affected bone, which may be described as dull and aching, or as a sharp and stabbing. Pain may also be intermittent. Sometimes, a lump or growth may emerge from the cancer site that is not accompanied by pain. Unfortunately, this too may be ignored in the belief that the growth may be a cyst. Finally, it is not uncommon for a patient to experience no symptoms of bone cancer at all.

There may be other symptoms of bone cancer that may occur other than pain, however. First, unexplained swelling of a limb or joint may indicate that a tumor is present. Sometimes, fatigue, fever, and unexplained weight loss may occur. In addition, the appearance of bone tumors may cause an excess level of calcium circulating in the bloodstream, which can produce nausea and bouts of mental confusion. Finally, the affected bone may become more susceptible to fracture, which may explain why many arm and leg bone cancers are detected while examining x-rays taken after a fall or injury.

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Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to WiseGeek is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon927743 — On Jan 26, 2014

Do the symptoms come and go? Or do they gradually get worse?

By musicshaman — On Sep 30, 2010

It's important to remember bone marrow cancer as well. Unfortunately, like all cancer of the bone symptoms, the symptoms of bone marrow cancer are often mistaken for other conditions until the cancer becomes too serious to treat.

However, just so you know, the symptoms of bone marrow cancer are pain, anemia, a tendency to infection, a lump on the bone, and unexplained fractures.

Pretty easy to confuse for other conditions, but if you get these all together, you very well may be at risk for bone marrow cancer, and should be checked out by an oncologist as soon as possible.

By StreamFinder — On Sep 30, 2010

Do the symptoms of bone cancer change by location? For example, would the symptoms of bone cancer in the arm be different than the symptoms of bone cancer in the back, or anywhere else, for that matter?

I know that when it comes to bone cancer symptoms, they're pretty spotty at best, but I just wasn't sure if it showed up differently in different areas of the body when it finally does start to show symptoms.

By pharmchick78 — On Sep 30, 2010

Very well done -- I'm glad that you mentioned how difficult it is to diagnose bone cancer, since there are so few early signs and symptoms of bone cancer -- and most of those that do show up are generally chalked up to something else.

This is unfortunately true for both children and adults -- unlike some other cancers, the scarcity of the symptoms of bone cancer in children and adults is pretty much uniform.

That's why bone cancer really is a very serious condition -- if it gets caught early, the chances of recovery are actually pretty good, but it is very rare for this condition to be caught before it progresses.

And to make it even worse, often times the symptoms that do show up are symptoms of secondary bone cancer, that is, a cancer that has metastasized to the bones from another site, meaning that the cancer is present in the lymph nodes and traveling throughout the body.

This is truly a heartbreaking condition.

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to WiseGeek is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill...
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