Managing symptoms of secondary bone cancer

Managing the symptoms of secondary bone cancer is an important part of your treatment. Symptoms of secondary bone cancer include pain, difficulty walking or moving, and hypercalcaemia.

About managing symptoms

Managing the symptoms of secondary bone cancer is an important part of your treatment. Symptoms of secondary cancer in the bone may include:

Bone pain

Pain is the most common symptom of secondary bone cancer.

There are different types of pain, and they may need different treatments.

There are many painkillers available. You may be given painkillers on their own or alongside other treatments. Other treatments that may be used to treat pain include:

Your doctor or specialist nurse will discuss your pain with you. It is important to let them know:

  • where your pain is
  • if the pain is not controlled
  • if you get pain with tasks such as walking or lifting things.

You can ask your doctor to refer you to a palliative care nurse. They are specialists in advising on pain and symptom control. They can also advise on other ways to help you manage pain.

Walking and moving

Some people with secondary bone cancer may have difficulty walking or moving around. This may be more likely to happen if you have pain when you move.

Your doctor will want to check that the bones have not become weakened by the cancer. Weakened bones are more likely to break (fracture). You may be given bone strengthening drugs, radiotherapy or, sometimes, an operation to strengthen the weakened bone.

If you have difficulty walking, a physiotherapist can assess you to see if a walking stick or ZimmerTM frame may help. They can also help you with moving around at home.

Secondary bone cancer in your arms may make day-to-day tasks such as eating or drying your hair painful or difficult. An occupational therapist can suggest different ways of doing things, or equipment that can help make things easier for you.

Malignant spinal cord compression (MSCC)

Secondary bone cancer often affects the bones in the spine. This can cause back or neck pain. Tell your doctors if you have pain. They can give you painkillers.

Sometimes, the cancer can put pressure on the nerves in the spine. This is called malignant spinal cord compression (MSCC). It is rare but can be serious.

Symptoms of spinal cord compression include:

  • back or neck pain, which may be mild at first but becomes severe
  • weakness in your arms or legs
  • numbness or pins and needles in your legs, hands, around your buttocks or anywhere else in your body
  • problems controlling or passing urine
  • constipation or problems controlling your bowels.

If you develop any of these symptoms, it is very important to let your doctor or specialist nurse know straight away.

If you have malignant spinal cord compression, you will need treatment as soon as possible. The treatment aims to relieve the pressure and prevent permanent damage to the nerves.

We have more information about spinal cord compression including how it may be treated.

Raised blood calcium level (hypercalcaemia)

Secondary cancer cells in the bone can cause calcium from the bone to be released into the blood. High levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcaemia) can make you feel:

  • sick
  • thirsty
  • drowsy
  • confused and unwell
  • constipated
  • that you are passing urine more often.

If you develop any of these symptoms, it is very important to let your doctor or specialist nurse know straight away.

You may need to spend a few days in hospital having treatment to reduce your calcium levels.

Your doctor or nurse may ask you to drink a lot. They will probably also give you fluids into a vein in your arm (intravenous infusion). This helps your body to get rid of the calcium.

Your doctor may give you bisphosphonates through a drip to reduce the level of calcium in your blood. You can have this treatment more than once if the calcium levels rise again. You should feel much better within a couple of days.

Managing effects on the blood

If you have a low level of red blood cells (anaemia), you may feel breathless and get tired more easily. Your doctor may suggest that you have a blood transfusion.

Low levels of white blood cells make you more likely to get an infection. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics if you do get an infection.

A low platelet count will increase your risk of bruising and bleeding. Occasionally, if your platelet count is very low, you may need a platelet transfusion.

Your doctor may suggest treatments that target the cancer to help reduce the effects on the bone marrow. This will depend on which type of primary cancer you have.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 February 2023
Next review: 01 February 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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