Bone cancer

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What is bone cancer?

Bone cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in bone or cartilage cells. Malignant means that it can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. When cancer starts in bone or cartilage cells, it is called primary bone cancer.

Together, groups of bones and cartilages form the skeleton. Bones protect organs inside the body and give the body structure and support. Cartilage covers the ends of bones. It stops bones from rubbing together and acts like a cushion.

Bone or cartilage cells sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to benign conditions such as bone cysts. They can also lead to benign tumours such as osteochondroma or enchondroma. Benign conditions and tumours are not cancerous. But in some cases, changes to bone or cartilage cells cause bone cancer.

The most common type of bone cancer is called osteosarcoma. It starts in bone cells. The second most common type of bone cancer starts in cartilage cells and is called chondrosarcoma. Ewing sarcoma is the third most common bone cancer in adults, but it occurs more often in children and teenagers.

Rare types of bone cancer can also develop. These include fibrosarcoma and malignant fibrous histiocytoma (MFH), which develop in the arms, legs or jaw bones. Chordoma is another rare tumour. It can develop in the spine.

Other types of cancer can spread to the bones, but this is not the same disease as primary bone cancer. Cancer that starts in another part of the body and spreads to the bone is called bone metastasis. It is not treated in the same way as primary bone cancer. Find out more about bone metastasis.

Diagram of the human skeleton


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