Osteosarcoma in children
Osteosarcoma is a cancer that starts in the bone. About 30 children in the UK develop osteosarcomas each year. These tumours occur more commonly in older children and teenagers and are very rarely seen in children under five.
More children than ever are surviving childhood cancer. There are new and better drugs and treatments. But it remains devastating to hear that your child has cancer, and at times it can feel overwhelming. There are many healthcare professionals and support organisations to help you through this difficult time.
Understanding more about the cancer your child has and the treatments that may be used can often help parents to cope. We hope you find the information here helpful. Your child's specialist will give you more detailed information. If you have any questions it’s important to ask the specialist doctor or nurse who knows your child’s individual situation.
You may find it helpful to read this information alongside our section on children’s cancers, which contains more details about cancers in children, their diagnosis and treatment, and the support services available.
We hope this information answers your questions. If you have any further questions, you can ask a nurse or doctor involved in your child's treatment.
Osteosarcoma (also called osteogenic sarcoma)
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Osteosarcoma often starts at the ends of the long bones, where new bone tissue forms as a young person grows. Any bone in the body can be affected, but the most common sites are in the arms and legs, particularly around the knee and shoulder joints.
There are several different types of osteosarcoma. Most occur in the centre of the bone. There are also rare subtypes, such as parosteal, periosteal, telangiectatic, and small cell osteosarcoma.
Causes of osteosarcoma
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There has been a lot of research into the causes of osteosarcoma but, like most childhood cancers, a definite cause is unknown. There are a few risk factors that have been associated with osteosarcoma. Children who have hereditary retinoblastoma (a rare tumour of the eye) have an increased risk of developing osteosarcoma. Children who have previously had radiotherapy and chemotherapy also have an increased risk of developing osteosarcoma. It's not caused by injuries or damage to the bone, although an injury may draw attention to a bone tumour.
Signs and symptoms of osteosarcoma
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Pain in the affected bone is the most common symptom. This pain may initially come and go, and then gradually become more severe and constant especially at night. There may also be swelling around the affected bone. Osteosarcoma is sometimes discovered when a bone that has been weakened by cancer breaks after the person has had a minor fall or accident.
These symptoms can be caused by many things other than cancer. However, any persistent bone pain should be checked by your child's doctor.
How osteosarcoma is diagnosed
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Usually you begin by seeing your family doctor (GP), who will examine your child and may arrange tests or x rays. Many of the specific tests for diagnosing bone tumours require experience and specialist techniques so if a bone tumour is suspected, the doctor will refer your child directly to a specialist hospital or bone tumour centre for further tests.
The doctor at the hospital will take your child's full medical history. They will then do a physical examination. This will include an examination of the painful bone to check for any swelling or tenderness. Your child will probably have a blood test to check their general health.
A variety of tests and investigations may be needed to diagnose an osteosarcoma. An x-ray of the painful part of the bone will usually identify a tumour, although sometimes they can be difficult to see.
A small piece of the tumour will be removed and looked at under a microscope. This is called a biopsy. It's a small operation, performed under a general anaesthetic.
Other tests are done to check whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. These include a chest x-ray, blood tests, a bone scan and an MRI or CT scan.
Any tests and investigations that your child needs will be explained to you. Our section on children’s cancers gives more details of what the tests and scans involve.
Grading of osteosarcoma
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Grading refers to the appearance of the cancer cells under the microscope, and gives an idea of how quickly the cancer may develop. Low-grade cancer cells are usually slow-growing and less likely to spread.
In high-grade tumours the cells are likely to grow quickly and are more likely to spread.
Most osteosarcomas are high-grade, but a type known as parosteal osteosarcoma is usually low-grade.
Staging of osteosarcoma
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The 'stage' of a cancer is a term used to describe its size and whether it has spread beyond its original site. Knowing the particular type and stage of the cancer helps the doctors to decide on the most appropriate treatment.
Most patients are grouped depending on whether cancer is found in only one part of the body (localised disease), or whether the cancer has spread from one part of the body to another (metastatic disease).
A staging system commonly used for osteosarcomas is described below:
The cancer is low-grade and is only found within the hard coating of the bone.
The cancer is low-grade, extending outside the bone and into the soft tissue spaces that contain nerves and blood vessels.
The cancer is high-grade and is completely contained within the hard coating of the bone.
The cancer is high-grade and has spread outside the bone and into surrounding soft tissue spaces that contain nerves and blood vessels. Most osteosarcomas are stage 2B.
The cancer can be low- or high-grade and is either found within the bone or extends outside the bone. The cancer has spread to other parts of the body, or to other bones not directly connected to the bone where the tumour started.
If the cancer comes back after initial treatment, this is known as recurrent or relapsed cancer.
Treatment for osteosarcoma
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Treatment will depend on a number of factors including the size, position and stage of the tumour.
Chemotherapy is a very important part of treatment for osteosarcoma. Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells, and is usually given to shrink the main tumour before surgery. It's also given after the tumour has been removed by surgery, to help reduce the risk of the cancer coming back (recurring). It's common for a combination of drugs to be used.
Radiotherapy may occasionally be given. This treats cancer by using high energy rays to destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.
The type and extent of surgery depends on the position and size of the tumour in the body. This surgery will need to be carried out at a specialist orthopaedic centre, and your child should be referred to one.
Surgery may include removing the whole limb (amputation) or part of the affected bone, which is then replaced by some form of false limb (prosthesis). If only part of the affected bone is removed, this is known as limb-sparing surgery. Most children will be considered for limb-sparing surgery.
Sometimes amputation of the limb is unavoidable if the cancer is affecting the surrounding blood vessels and nerves.
After amputation, a false limb will be fitted and will be regularly adjusted as your child grows. False limbs can work very well. It should be possible for your child to join in with normal activities and even sports.
There are two ways that limb-sparing surgery may be done:
replacing the bone with a prosthesis (a specially designed artificial part)
replacing the affected bone with bone taken from another part of the body (bone graft).
After this type of surgery, children will usually be able to use their limbs almost normally. However, they're advised not to participate in any contact sports. This is because any damage to the bone graft or prosthesis may require another major operation to repair or replace it.
If your child is growing, the limb prosthesis will need to be lengthened as the bone grows. This may mean there are extra short stays in hospital, although some prostheses can be lengthened as an outpatient procedure.
New treatments for osteosarcoma
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Mifamurtide, also called Mepact®, is a new type of biological therapy treatment. It may be given to your child if they have had a surgical resection to remove the osteosarcoma and the tumour has not spread. It will be given along with chemotherapy after surgery to try and stop the osteosarcoma coming back. Mifamurtide is a relatively new drug and so more research needs to be done to fully understand its side effects and how to use it best.
Side effects of treatment for osteosarcoma
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Treatment often causes side effects, and your child’s doctor will discuss these with you before the treatment starts. Any possible side effects will depend upon the treatment being given and the part of the body that's being treated.
Chemotherapy side effects
Some general side effects of chemotherapy can include:
feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting)
increased risk of infection
bruising and bleeding
Radiotherapy side effects
Radiotherapy can cause irritation or soreness of the skin in the area being treated and general tiredness.
Surgery side effects
If your child is having surgery, the surgeon will explain the possible complications of the surgery that your child is having.
Late side effects of osteosarcoma
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A small number of children may develop late side effects, sometimes many years later. These include a reduction in bone growth, infertility, a change in the way the heart and lungs work, and a slight increase in the risk of developing another cancer in later life.
Your child’s doctor or nurse will talk to you and monitor your child for any potential late effects. There is more detailed information about these late side effects in our section on children’s cancers.
Many children have their treatment as part of a clinical research trial. Trials aim to improve our understanding of the best way to treat an illness, usually by comparing the standard treatment with a new or modified version. Specialist doctors carry out trials for children's cancer. If appropriate, your child's medical team will talk to you about taking part in a clinical trial, and will answer any questions you have. Written information will be provided to help explain things.
Taking part in a research trial is completely voluntary, and you'll be given plenty of time to decide if it's right for your child. Your child's doctor can tell you if there are any trials available that might be suitable for your child.
Before any trial is allowed to take place it must be approved by an ethics committee, which protects the interests of the patients taking part.
If you decide to take part in a trial, your doctor or a research nurse must discuss the treatment with you. This is so you have a full understanding of the trial and what it means for your child to take part. You may decide not to take part, or you can withdraw from a trial at any stage and will then receive the best standard treatment available.
Follow-up after treatment for osteosarcoma
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Many children with osteosarcoma are cured. However, your child may need to have surgery to lengthen the affected limb as they grow. Your child will have regular check-ups and x-rays in the paediatric or adolescent oncology clinic, and at the orthopaedic centre.
If you have specific concerns about your child’s condition and treatment, it is best to discuss them with your child’s doctor, who knows the situation in detail.
Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG)
CCLG coordinates research and care for children and their parents. There are 21 CCLG specialist centres for the treatment of childhood cancer and leukaemia, covering all areas of the UK and Ireland (there's a map of the centres on the website). Has information about the CCLG, childhood cancer and leukaemia.
CLIC Sargent offers practical support to children and young people with cancer or leukaemia, and to their families.
This section has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including:
Grimer, et al. UK Guidelines for the Management of Bone Sarcoma. Sarcoma. 2010. vol. 2010.
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Improving Outcomes for People with Sarcoma. 2006.
Pinkerton, et al. Evidence-based paediatric oncology. 2nd edition. Blackwell Publishing. 2007.
Voute, et al. Cancer in Children: Clinical Management. 5th edition. Oxford University Press. 2005.
Wang et al. Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, diagnosis, and histology. www.uptodate.com (accessed November 2012).
With thanks to: Dr Kate Wheeler, Consultant Paediatric Oncologist; and the people who have been affected by cancer who have reviewed this edition.
Reviewing information is just one of the ways you could help when you join our Cancer Voices Network.
We worked with the Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG) to write our information about children's cancer.