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Bone Tumors

Bone tumors, also known as bone cancer, are malignant tumors that can occur in any type of bone tissue.

Malignant tumors that originate in the bone tissue itself are called primary bone cancer, and are quite rare. Cancer that metastasizes (spreads) to the bones from elsewhere in the body is known as metastatic or secondary cancer, and is more common. Benign, or non-malignant, tumors can also develop in the bones, but unlike cancer, they do not spread or destroy bone tissue.

Review the tabs at top of this page for information on bone tumor types, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

  • Multiple myeloma: Multiple myeloma can affect the bones, but it is actually a rare form of blood cancer that begins in the plasma cells in the bone marrow. Excessive cells may eventually mass together to form a tumor or tumors in many bones of the body. The average age of occurrence is 60 years of age, although it may occur any time between 20 and 80.
  • Osteosarcoma (also known as osteogenic sarcoma): Another primary malignant bone tumor, this cancer begins in the osteoid (hard or compact) tissue of the bone. It generally affects the large bones of the arm or leg, occurs most commonly in young people (under age 20) and affects more males than females.
  • Chondrosarcoma: A cancer that forms in the cartilaginous tissue, which lines the joints and pads the ends of bones. It usually starts in the pelvis (between the hip bones), the shoulder, the ribs, or at the ends of the long bones of the arms and legs. It can occur at any age but is more common in people over 40.
  • Ewing Sarcoma family of tumors (ESFTs): These can occur in bone, soft tissue, blood vessels or other tissues. ESFTs are most common in the pelvis and backbone and in the legs and arms. ESFTs are more common in children, adolescents and young adults.
  • Malignant fibrous histiocytoma (MFH): This rare primary bone tumor begins more often in connective tissue, such as ligaments and tendons, than in bone. When it does occur in bones, it generally affects the legs or arms. Incidence peaks in ages 20 to 30 and 50 to 60.

Bone tumor symptoms can vary according to the type and location of the tumor. The most common symptoms are:

  • Pain and/or tenderness (although these do not occur in all bone tumors)
  • A lump or bump that forms on the bone or surrounding soft tissues
  • Fatigue and/or weakness

UC San Diego Health’s team approach ensures accurate diagnosis and staging of various types of bone cancer, as well as a variety of treatment options.

In addition to taking a thorough medical history and giving you a physical exam that includes urine and blood tests, your doctor may also use the following diagnostic tools.

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan: This procedure uses controlled amounts of x-rays to take detailed pictures of structures within the body. It is particularly effective in diagnosing bone tumors.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Magnetic energy and radio waves are used to create highly cross-sectional images or "slices" of the human body. MRI can show whether or not the tumor has broken through the bone and involved the surrounding soft tissues.
  • Biopsy: During a biopsy, a sample is taken from the tumor and analyzed to determine whether the tumor is malignant or benign. We utilize CT scans or ultrasound during biopsy to precisely target the tumor and remove a sample without contaminating surrounding areas. Such precise biopsy techniques are necessary for optimal results and patient safety.
We encourage physician referrals and patient self-referrals to our division for initial diagnosis, biopsy, and staging.

The primary treatment for bone cancer is usually surgery, often followed by chemotherapy. Radiation therapy is sometimes used to precisely target the tumor and reduce damage to surrounding healthy tissues, or in cases where surgery is not possible.

Surgical advances, including minimally invasive procedures, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatments have resulted in new procedures that make it possible to remove cancers without having to remove all or part of an arm or leg. Our orthopedic oncology team has experience and training in these limb-sparing surgical techniques. In cases where bone and joint tissue must be removed, reconstructive surgery can help restore mobility and function.