Most of the time when someone with cancer is told they have cancer in the bones, the doctor is talking about a cancer that has spread to the bones from somewhere else. This is called metastatic cancer. It can be seen in many different types of advanced cancer, like breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer. When these cancers in the bone are looked at under a microscope, they look like the tissue they came from. For example, if someone has lung cancer that has spread to bone, the cells of the cancer in the bone still look and act like lung cancer cells. They do not look or act like bone cancer cells, even though they are in the bones. Since these cancer cells still act like lung cancer cells, they still need to be treated with drugs that are used for lung cancer.
For more information about metastatic bone cancer, please see our document called Bone Metastasis, as well as the document on the specific place the cancer started (Breast Cancer, Lung Cancer, Prostate Cancer, etc.).
Other kinds of cancers that are sometimes called “bone cancers” start in the blood forming cells of the bone marrow − not in the bone itself. The most common cancer that starts in the bone marrow and causes bone tumors is called multiple myeloma. Another cancer that starts in the bone marrow is leukemia, but it is generally considered a blood cancer rather than a bone cancer. Sometimes lymphomas, which more often start in lymph nodes, can start in bone marrow. Multiple myeloma, lymphoma, and leukemia are not discussed in this document. For more information on these cancers, refer to the individual document for each.
A primary bone tumor starts in the bone itself. True (or primary) bone cancers are called sarcomas. Sarcomas are cancers that start in bone, muscle, fibrous tissue, blood vessels, fat tissue, as well as some other tissues. They can develop anywhere in the body.
There are several different types of bone tumors. Their names are based on the area of bone or surrounding tissue that is affected and the kind of cells forming the tumor. Some primary bone tumors are benign (not cancerous), and others are malignant (cancerous). Most bone cancers are sarcomas.