Secondary bone cancer

Secondary bone cancer

This section helps you understand more about secondary bone cancer. It includes basic information about how secondary bone cancer is diagnosed and treated.

Learn more about:

The bones

A typical healthy adult 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.

The 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). 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. Bones have two types of cells – osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Osteoblasts create new bone and osteoclasts destroy old bone.

What is secondary bone cancer?

Bone cancer can start as either a primary or secondary cancer. The two types are different, and here we will focus on secondary bone cancer.

Primary bone cancer – This means that the cancer starts in the bone. For more information, download our Understanding Primary Bone Cancer fact sheet.

Secondary bone cancer – This means the cancer started in another part of the body, but has now spread (metastasised) to the bone. It may also be called bone metastases or bone mets.

Cancer cells often spread from the original (primary) cancer, through the bloodstream or lymph vessels, to bones in the spine, ribs and pelvis, or to the upper bones of the arms and legs.

Secondary cancer in the bone keeps the name of the original cancer. Because the cancer has spread, it is considered advanced or stage 4 cancer. For more on primary bone cancer, go here.

Which cancers spread to the bone?

Any type of cancer can spread to the bone. The cancers most likely to spread to the bone include prostate, breast, lung, kidney, thyroid and myeloma, a type of blood cancer.

What types are there?

There are two main types of secondary bone cancer:


This means the bone has become damaged. In some cases, small holes form in the bone. These are known as lytic lesions, and can weaken the bone and increase the risk of breakage or other problems.


This means new bone is formed, but it grows abnormally, causing the bone to become weak and deformed.

Most people develop either osteolytic or osteoblastic changes, but some have both.

Who gets secondary bone cancer?

Secondary bone cancer is much more common than primary bone cancer in Australia. It is more common in adults than children.

The bone is one of the most common sites cancer spreads to, along with the lymph nodes, liver and lungs.

What are the risk factors?

Secondary bone cancer is always caused by cancer cells spreading to the bone from a primary cancer. It is not fully understood why some people develop secondary bone cancer and others don’t.

This information was last reviewed in June 2018
View who reviewed this content
View our editorial policy

Support services

Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum

Need legal and financial assistance?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment

Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment

Cancer information

What is cancer?
How cancer starts and spreads

Primary bone cancer
Learn what primary bone cancer is, and how it is diagnosed and treated

Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope

View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends