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Find out how x-rays are used to help diagnose bone cancer, including what they are, how you have them and what happens afterwards.

What they are

X-rays use high energy rays to take pictures of the inside of your body. They can look at bones to show breaks and other joint problems. X-rays can also show changes in other organs, such as the lungs.

A radiographer takes your x-rays in the x-ray or imaging department of the hospital.

Why you have it

The bones show up well on x-rays and this is the first test you are likely to have. Sometimes x-rays can give a very recognisable picture, which can help the specialist to diagnose particular types of bone cancer.

A primary bone tumour can usually show up as one of the following:

  • breakdown of an area of a bone
  • new bone growth
  • swelling of the bone
  • swelling in the soft tissues surrounding the bone
  • a break in the bone (fracture)

Preparing for your x-ray

There is no special preparation for an x-ray. You can eat and drink normally beforehand. Take your medicines as normal.

What happens

Before your x-ray

When you arrive, the radiographer might ask you to change into a hospital gown.

During your x-ray

If you can’t stand you can have your x-ray sitting or lying on the x-ray couch. The radiographer helps you get into the correct position for your x-ray. This may take a couple of minutes.

They line the machine up to make sure it's in the right place. You must keep still but can breathe normally. The radiographer then goes behind a screen to take the x-ray. They can still see and hear you. They may ask you to hold your breath for a few seconds while they take the x-ray.

X-rays are painless and quick. You won’t feel or see anything.

You usually have more than one x-ray taken from different angles. The whole process may take a few minutes.

After your x-ray

After the x-ray you can get dressed and go home or back to work. 

Getting your results

Ask your doctor how long it will be until you get your x-ray results. Unless your doctor thinks it’s urgent the results might take a couple of weeks.

Waiting for test results can be a worrying time. You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can ask them for information. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For support and information, you can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Possible risks

An x-ray is a safe test for most people but like all medical tests it has some possible risks. Your doctor and radiographer make sure the benefits of having the test outweigh these risks.


The amount of radiation you receive from an x-ray is small and doesn't make you feel unwell.

The risk of the radiation causing any problems in the future is very small. The benefits of finding out what is wrong outweigh any risk there may be from radiation.

Talk to your doctor if you are worried about the possible effects of x-rays.

The testicles and ovaries are particularly sensitive to radiation and you may have lead shields to protect them if they are in the x-ray field.

Last reviewed: 
23 Nov 2017
  • UK guidelines for the management of bone sarcomas
    C Gerrand and others
    Clinical Sarcoma Research, 2016. Volume 6

  • Bone sarcomas: ESMO clinical practice guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up
    The ESMO/European Sarcoma Network Working Group
    Annals of Oncology, 2014. Volume 25, Supplement 3

  • Essential Orthopaedics
    Miller and others
    Elsevier Health Sciences, 2010

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