About secondary bone cancer
This section helps you understand more about secondary bone cancer – cancer that has spread to the bone from another part of the body. It includes general information about how secondary bone cancer is diagnosed and treated.
Learn more about:
- What is secondary bone cancer?
- Which cancers spread to the bone?
- The bones
- What types are there?
- Who gets secondary bone cancer?
- What are the causes?
Bone cancer can start as either a primary or secondary cancer. The two types are different, and here we only talk about about secondary bone cancer.
Primary bone cancer
This means that the cancer starts in the bone.
For more on this, see Primary bone cancer.
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 metastatic bone cancer, bone metastases or bone mets.
Cancer cells can spread from the original cancer (the primary cancer), through the bloodstream or lymph vessels, to any of the bones in the body. Bones commonly affected by secondary bone cancer include the spine, ribs, pelvis, and upper bones of the arms (humerus) and legs (femur).
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. You may find it useful to look at information about the primary cancer type.
Any type of cancer can spread to the bone.
The cancers most likely to spread to the bone include:
- prostate cancer
- breast cancer
- lung cancer
- kidney cancer
- thyroid cancer
- myeloma (a type of blood cancer)
A typical healthy adult has over 200 bones in their body.
Bones have a number of important functions:
- support the body
- 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. The meeting point of two bones is called a joint.
Bones have two types of cells – osteoblasts and osteoclasts.
Osteoblasts create new bone and osteoclasts break down old bone. Normal bone is constantly going through a process called remodelling, in which old bone is broken down and replaced with new bone.
Bones of the body
Cancer can spread to any bone in the body. Bones commonly affected include the spine, ribs, pelvis and upper bones of the arms and legs.
There are two main types of secondary bone cancer:
- Osteolytic – In this type, bone is broken down without new bone being made. In some cases, holes form in the bone. These are known as lytic lesions. They can weaken the bone and increase the risk of breakage or other problems.
- Osteoblastic – In this type, new bone is formed in some areas, but it grows abnormally. These areas are called osteoblastic lesions. The lesions are very hard (dense) but they make the bone weak and deformed.
Most people with secondary bone cancer develop either osteolytic or osteoblastic changes, but some have both.
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 may spread to, along with the lymph nodes, liver, lungs and brain.
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.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Craig Lewis, Conjoint Associate Professor UNSW, Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Dr Katherine Allsopp, Staff Specialist, Palliative Medicine, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Michael Coulson, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; David Phelps, Consumer; Juliane Samara, Nurse Practitioner Specialist Palliative Care, Clare Holland House, Calvary Public Hospital Bruce, ACT; A/Prof Robert Smee, Radiation Oncologist, Nelune Cancer Centre, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW.
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