Early Bone Cancer Symptoms

What is bone cancer?

Cancer can be found in bone for two different reasons. One kind of cancer in bone actually originates in that bone. This is true bone cancer, or primary bone cancer. An example of primary bone cancer is an osteosarcoma. Cancer can also involve bone when it originates in another organ and then spreads to involve bone. This is call metastatic or secondary bone cancer. Common causes of metastatic bone cancer are lung, breast, and prostate cancer. We name the cancer problem by its place of origin. For example, a man with prostate cancer which later spreads into his bones has not developed true "bone cancer." He now has metastatic prostate cancer in his bones. That is treated differently than metastatic lung cancer in bone.

How do doctors diagnose bone cancer?

Whether the cancer in bone is primary or metastatic, the early symptoms vary from no symptoms at all to severe bone pain. It is very common for cancer in bone to not cause any symptoms. This form of cancer can only be detected using imaging tests, such as X-ray tests, computerized tomography (CT scan), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). For some cancers doctors will use a general screening method to search all bones for cancer using X-ray screening or nuclear medicine bone scan to find cancer in bone that is not causing symptoms.

What does bone cancer feel like?

Cancer in bone can cause intermittent or progressively severe localized bone pain where the cancer is in the bone. The bone pain is described as aching, throbbing, stabbing, and excruciating. This can lead to insomnia, loss of appetite, and inability to carry out normal daily activities.

Sometimes cancer in bone weakens the bone to such a degree that it leads to breaking of the bone (bone fracture). This can cause severe bone pain and loss of function of the affected area of the body. Occasionally, bone fracture is the initial symptom of a bone cancer.

Medically reviewed by Jay B. Zatzkin, MD; American Board of Internal Medicine with subspecialty in Medical Oncology


UpToDate. Overview of cancer pain syndromes.