Cancer Council Australia

Join our network

Facebook Twitter Instagram
Pinterest Youtube RSS

Larger Text Smaller Text Print

Bone cancer

Download PDF

What is bone cancer?

Bone cancer can refer to primary bone cancer or secondary bone cancer and the two types are quite different. Primary bone cancer is cancer that begins in the bones. Secondary (metastatic) bone cancer refers to a cancer that started elsewhere in the body and has spread to the bones. 

Primary bone cancer is rare, with 255 Australians diagnosed in 2015. More commonly diagnosed is secondary bone cancer. In 2016, 100 Australians died from primary bone cancer. 

If you have secondary cancer in the bone, it may be useful to read information about the primary cancer in conjunction with this information, as secondary bone cancer is treated differently to primary bone cancer. A secondary cancer is named after the primary site where it began, for example lung cancer with bone secondaries. 

There are more than 30 different types of primary bone cancer. Also called bone sarcoma, the most common types include: 

  • osteosarcoma, which affects cells that grow bone tissue
  • chondrosarcoma, which grows in the cartilage
  • Ewing's sarcoma, which affects cells in the bone or soft tissue that multiply rapidly.

The information below refers to primary bone cancer. 


Bone cancer symptoms

The most common symptom of bone cancer is pain in the bones and joints, which may be worse at night or during activity. Other symptoms may include:

  • swelling over the affected part of the bone
  • stiffness or tenderness in the bone
  • problems with movement
  • unexplained weight loss
  • loss of feeling in the affected limb
  • tiredness.

Causes of bone cancer

Some factors that can increase your risk of bone cancer include:

  • previous radiotherapy, particularly for people who received high doses at a young age
  • other bone conditions, such as Paget's disease of the bone
  • genetic factors, such as inherited conditions like Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and a strong family history of certain cancers.

Diagnosis for bone cancer

If you are experiencing symptoms, the following tests may be used to identify a bone cancer diagnosis:


X-rays are used to scan the bones.

CT or MRI scans

Scans, including three-dimensional imagery, create pictures of your body that help highlight any bone.


A biopsy is when a small tissue sample is removed from the bone and examined under a microscope. It can be done under local or general aneasthesia. 


Treatment for bone cancer

Primary bone cancer is usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy or a combination of these treatments.


If cancer is detected, your doctor will determine the grade and stage of your cancer. Grading refers to how quickly a tumour might grow. Staging describes how far cancer has spread.


Surgery for bone cancer will depend on the location of the cancer:

Limb-sparing surgery

Surgery to remove the cancer but spare the limb is the most common type of surgery for bone cancer. Under general anaesthetic, the surgeon removes the affected part of the bone where the cancer is growing. The bone that is removed is replaced with either an implant (prosthesis) or a bone graft, using a healthy part of bone from another part of the body or from a "bone bank".


When it is not possible to remove all of the cancer without affecting the arm or leg too much, the limb will be removed. This is becoming increasingly less common. After the area has healed, a replacement limb (prosthesis) will be prepared.

Others areas of the body

Surgery usually involves removing the cancer, the affected bone along with some healthy tissue around it. Bones from other parts of the body may be used to replace the bone that was removed.


Chemotherapy drugs are used to destroy or damage cancer cells. For certain types of bone cancer, chemotherapy can be used in combination with surgery to either shrink the tumour before surgery, or after surgery to kill any cancer cells left behind.

Chemotherapy can also be used as a form of palliative treatment, to arrest the growth, or control the symptoms of advanced cancer.


Radiotherapy uses high energy rays to destroy or damage cancer cells. It may be given before surgery, to help make surgery easier and safer, or after surgery, to reduce the chance of the cancer cells regrowing.

Palliative care

In some cases of bone cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer. As well as slowing the spread of bone cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.


Screening for bone cancer

There is currently no screening for bone cancer available in Australia.

Prognosis for bone cancer

It is not possible for a doctor to predict the exact course of a disease, as it will depend on each person's individual circumstances. However, your doctor may give you a prognosis, the likely outcome of the disease, based on the type of bone cancer you have, the test results, the rate of tumour growth, as well as your age, fitness and medical history.

Preventing bone cancer  

There are no proven measures to prevent bone cancer.


Copy edited from Understanding Primary Bone Cancer information fact sheet, Cancer Council Australia  © 2017. Last medical review of source booklet: June 2017.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.






For more information

For support and information on cancer and cancer-related issues, call Cancer Council 13 11 20. This is a confidential service.

Booklets and other publications

  • Understanding Primary Bone Cancer factsheet - Download (PDF)
  • View more Cancer Booklets including information on surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Includes additional information on treatment, making decisions around treatment and managing side effects of treatment.

Also included, detailed information on looking after yourself during and after treatment, and links to both professional and community support.

How you can help

You can support Cancer Council by:

  • volunteering your time
  • participating in an event or
  • making a donation to help fund our cancer research, education and support services.

This page was last updated on: Monday, June 17, 2019

Web design Code and Visual