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About secondary bone cancer

Secondary bone cancer is when a cancer has spread to the bones from where it started. Find out about symptoms and tests.

Where a cancer starts is called the primary cancer. If some cells break away from the primary cancer they can move through the bloodstream or lymph system to another part of the body, where they can form a new tumour. This is called a secondary cancer. Secondary cancers are also called metastases (pronounced met-ass-ta-sees).

Secondary liver cancer.jpg

The secondary cancer is made of the same type of cells as the primary cancer.

So, if your cancer started in your lung and has spread to your bones, the areas of cancer in the bone are made up of lung cancer cells.

This is different from having a cancer that first started in the bone (a primary bone cancer). In that case, the cancer is made up of bone cells that have become cancerous. This is important because the primary cancer tells your doctor which type of treatment you need.

Which cancers spread to the bones

Any cancer can spread to the bones. The most common ones to spread are:

  • prostate cancer
  • breast cancer
  • lung cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • thyroid cancer

Secondary bone cancer can develop in any of the bones of your body. 

Diagram of the skeleton

Symptoms of secondary bone cancer

Symptoms can include:

  • pain – the pain is continuous and people often describe it as gnawing
  • backache, which gets worse despite resting
  • weaker bones that break more easily
  • raised blood calcium (hypercalcaemia), causing dehydration, confusion, vomiting, abdominal pain and constipation
  • low levels of blood cells – blood cells are made in the bone marrow and can be crowded out by the cancer cells, causing lowered red blood cells (anaemia), increased risk of infection, bruising and bleeding
  • pressure on the spinal cord (spinal cord compression)

Remember that aches and pains are common and may be a muscle strain or an everyday ache. Tell your doctor if you have a new pain. They can check what is causing it and treat it as soon as possible. This helps to avoid further problems such as bone fractures or severe pain.

Symptoms of spinal cord compression include pain, weakness in your legs, numbness, paralysis and loss of bladder and bowel control (incontinence). 

Contact your doctor straight away or go to the accident and emergency department if you have symptoms of spinal cord compression, it is an emergency.

Tests

You may have one or more of the following tests:

  • MRI scan
  • PET scan
  • X-rays
  • bone scan
  • bone marrow test

Survival

Most people worry about their outlook (prognosis) when they have a secondary cancer. Your individual outlook depends on many factors including whether the cancer has spread to more than one part of your body, how quickly it is growing, and how it responds to treatment.  It is usually difficult to predict and this uncertainty can be hard to deal with.

Last reviewed: 
10 Oct 2017
  • Biology of bone metastases: causes and consequences
    HA Harvey and L Cream
    Clin Breast Cancer. 2007 Jul;7 Suppl 1:S7-S13

  • Painful osseous metastases
    Pain Physician. 2011 Jul-Aug;14(4):E373-403
    HS Smith

  • Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology (10th edition)
    VT DeVita , TS Lawrence, SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2015

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