Primary bone cancer

Primary bone cancer

Bone cancer can develop as either a primary or secondary cancer. The two types are different and this fact sheet is only about primary bone cancer.

  • Primary bone cancer – means that the cancer starts in a bone. It may develop on the surface, in the outer layer or from the centre of the bone. As a tumour grows, cancer cells multiply and destroy the bone. If left untreated, primary bone cancer can spread to other parts of the body.
  • Secondary (metastatic) bone cancermeans that the cancer started in another part of the body (e.g. breast or lung) and has spread to the bones.

Learn more about:

The bones

A typical healthy person has over 200 bones, which:

  • support and protect internal organs
  • are attached to muscles to allow movement
  • contain bone marrow, which produces and stores new blood cells
  • store proteins, minerals and nutrients, such as calcium.

Bones are made up of different parts, including a hard outer layer (known as cortical or compact bone) and a spongy inner core (known as trabecular or cancellous bone). The bone marrow is found in this spongy core. Cartilage is the tough material at the end of each bone that allows one bone to move against another. This meeting point is called a joint.

Bone structure

Primary Bone

Types of bone cancer

There are more than 30 types of primary bone cancer. The most common types are:

osteosarcoma (about 35% of bone cancers)

  • starts in cells that grow bone tissue
  • often affects the arms, legs and pelvis, but may occur in any bone
  • occurs in children and young adults with growing bones, and older people in their 70s and 80s
  • most are high-grade tumours

chondrosarcoma (about 30% of bone cancers)

  • starts in cells that grow cartilage
  • often affects the bones in the upper arms and legs, pelvis, ribs and shoulder blade
  • most often occurs in middle- aged and older people
  • slow-growing form of cancer that rarely spreads to other parts of the body
  • most are low-grade tumours

Ewing’s sarcoma (about 15% of bone cancers)

  • affects cells in the bone or soft tissue that multiply rapidly and is often associated with a large lump
  • often affects the pelvis, legs, ribs, spine, upper arms
  • common in children and young adults
  • all are high-grade tumours

Some types of cancer affect the soft tissues around the bones. These are known as soft tissue sarcomas, and may be treated differently. For more details, talk to your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

How common is bone cancer?

Bone cancer is rare. About 250 Australians are diagnosed with primary bone cancer each year.

It affects people of all ages, but is most often seen in people aged 10–25 and over 50. If it develops later in life, it may be linked to another bone condition.

What are the risk factors?

The causes of most bone cancers are unknown, but factors that increase the risk include:

Previous radiation therapy (radiotherapy) – Radiation therapy to treat cancer increases the risk of developing bone cancer. The risk is higher for people who have high doses of radiation therapy at a young age. Most people who have radiation therapy will not develop bone cancer.

Other bone conditions – Some people who have had Paget’s disease of the bone, fibrous dysplasia or multiple enchondromas are at higher risk of developing bone cancer. Some studies also suggest that people who have had a soft tissue sarcoma have an increased risk of developing bone cancer.

Genetic factors – Some inherited conditions such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome increase the risk of bone cancer. People with a strong family history of certain types of cancer are also at risk. Talk to a family cancer clinic for more information. Some people develop bone cancer due to genetic changes that happen during their lifetime, rather than inheriting a faulty gene. Most bone cancers are not hereditary.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on primary bone cancer.

    Understanding Primary Bone Cancer

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EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
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This information was last reviewed in June 2019
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Cancer information

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Secondary bone cancer
Learn what secondary bone cancer is, and how it is diagnosed and treated.

Dealing with the diagnosis
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