Osteosarcoma is a type of primary bone cancer (also called bone sarcoma). Sarcomas are rare cancers that develop in the supporting tissues of the body. Supporting tissues include bone, cartilage, tendons, fat and muscle.
There are 2 main types of sarcoma:
Osteosarcoma is the most common type of primary bone cancer. It usually develops in growing bones and most often affects teenagers and young adults. But it can occur at any age. In adults, it is most likely to occur over the age of 60. It is slightly more common in men than women.
Bone sarcoma can develop in any bone in the body. It can also develop in the soft tissue near bones. The most common areas for osteosarcoma to develop are the arms or legs, often near the knee.
There are different types of osteosarcoma. They are named after the part of the bone where the cancer starts, for example the middle or surface of the bone. Knowing the type of osteosarcoma gives your doctors an idea of how quickly the cancer cells might grow. This is called the grade of the cancer.
The most common osteosarcoma is conventional osteosarcoma. It is found inside the middle of the bone. Types of conventional osteosarcoma include:
There are also rarer types of osteosarcoma. These include:
- small cell osteosarcoma.
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse can tell you more about the type of osteosarcoma you have.
Pain is the most common symptom of bone cancer, including osteosarcoma. But symptoms may vary, depending on where the cancer is.
The area may be:
- painful when touched.
Primary bone cancer is sometimes found when a bone breaks after a minor fall or accident. This is because it has been weakened by the cancer.
Most of the time, these symptoms are caused by other conditions that are more common than bone cancer. But if you have any swelling or unexplained bone pain, get it checked by your GP.
Tell your GP if the pain happens at night or when you are resting.
The exact causes of primary bone cancer are not known. Sometimes osteosarcoma develops at times when the bones are growing quickly, such as during puberty. This could explain why osteosarcoma is more common in teenagers.
Adults may have a slightly higher risk of developing osteosarcoma later in life if they have:
- a bone condition called Paget’s disease
- had radiotherapy in the past.
Rarely, osteosarcoma may occur in people from families where there is an inherited faulty gene such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome. This gene change increases the risk of developing other types of cancer as well.
You usually start by visiting your GP. They will check the area, and your general health. They may arrange some tests or x-rays.
Your GP will refer you to a specialist sarcoma centre for tests if they:
- are not sure what the problem is
- think you may have a bone cancer.
You may have some of the following tests to diagnose osteosarcoma:
Bone biopsies and other tests to diagnose bone cancer are done by sarcoma specialists. Tests may be done on the tissue samples to find out if there are any genetic changes in the sarcoma cells. This is sometimes called cytogenetic testing. The tissue sample is also tested to look for any proteins the cancer cell might be producing.
This information can help tell your doctor the type of sarcoma you have and if certain treatments are suitable for you.
We have more information about diagnosing bone cancer.
Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. We have more information that can help.
The results of your tests give your cancer doctor information about the stage and grade of the cancer.
The stage refers to the size of the cancer and whether it has spread outside the bone.
The grade is how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly a cancer may grow and develop.
The most common grading system for primary bone cancer uses the following 3 grades:
- Grade 1 - cancer cells are low-grade and look like normal bone cells. They are usually slow-growing and less likely to spread.
- Grade 2 - cancer cells are high-grade and look abnormal. The cells are likely to grow more quickly and are more likely to spread.
- Grade 3 - cancer cells are high-grade and look more abnormal than grade 2. This means the cancer is more likely to come back (recur) or spread to other parts of the body.
Most osteosarcomas are high-grade. But there are some rarer types which are usually low-grade.
We have more information about staging and grading bone cancer.
Osteosarcoma is rare, so it is treated by a team of doctors and other healthcare professionals at a hospital with a specialist sarcoma centre.
Your test results are discussed by a team of specialist health care professionals. If your tests show a diagnosis of bone cancer, a team of specialist doctors and other professionals called a multidisciplinary team (MDT) will meet. They will discuss the best possible treatment for you.
After the MDT meeting, your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the treatment options and possible side effects to you. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making a decision.
The treatment you have depends on a number of things, including:
- the position of the cancer
- the size of the cancer
- if it has spread (its stage)
- the grade of the cancer
- your general health.
You usually have a combination of the following treatments for osteosarcoma:
Surgery is usually the main treatment. It is used to remove the area of bone affected by osteosarcoma. Some people might have reconstructive surgery at the same time as the operation. If you have a bone sarcoma in an arm or leg, it is usually possible to remove the sarcoma with limb-sparing surgery. Very rarely, the best treatment is to remove the whole of the affected limb (amputation).
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. For people with osteosarcoma, it is usually given before surgery. The aim is to shrink the tumour and improve the results of surgery.
Chemotherapy after surgery also helps to destroy any remaining cancer cells (adjuvant chemotherapy). Osteosarcoma might be treated with a chemotherapy drug called ifosfamide, or different combinations of chemotherapy drugs.
Children, teenagers and adults aged 30 or under having chemotherapy after surgery may also have a targeted therapy called mifamurtide (Mepact®). Mifamurtide is a targeted therapy drug that helps the immune system to destroy cancer cells. This can help reduce the risk of osteosarcoma coming back.
Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells. Radiotherapy is not often used to treat osteosarcoma. It may be used when surgery is not possible, or if the tumour cannot be completely removed by surgery.
You may be offered some treatments as part of a clinical trial.
Possible late effects
A small number of people have side effects that continue after treatment. This will vary depending on the size and position of the tumour and the treatment. You may have rehabilitation to help you recover and manage any side effects.
Sometimes side effects develop after treatment and some may happen many years later. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain more about any possible late effects and what can help to manage them. Always tell them if side effects are not improving.
Sex and fertility
Cancer and its treatment can sometimes affect your sex life. There are ways to help your sexual well-being and to manage any problems.
Treatment for sarcoma may affect your fertility. If you are worried about your fertility it is important to talk with your doctor before you start treatment. We have more information about:
Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:
Below is a sample of the sources used in our osteosarcoma information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
European Society for Medical Oncology ESMO. Clinical Practice Guideline for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. S.J. Strauss et al. December 2021. Available from Bone sarcomas: ESMO–EURACAN–GENTURIS–ERN PaedCan Clinical Practice Guideline for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up - Annals of Oncology (accessed May 2023)
British Medical Journal (BMJ) Best Practice Osteosarcoma overview. Available from Osteosarcoma - Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment | BMJ Best Practice (accessed May 2023)
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Bone and soft tissue sarcoma - recognition and referral: Diagnosis of bone and soft tissue sarcoma. Last revised August 2020. Available from https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/bone-soft-tissue-sarcoma-recognition-referral/diagnosis/ (accessed May 2023)
Journal of Pathology and Translational Medicine. What’s new in soft tissue and bone pathology 2022–updates from the WHO classification 5th edition. Erica Y. Kao 1 and Jose G. Mantilla 2. November 2022. Available from What’s new in soft tissue and bone pathology 2022–updates from the WHO classification 5th edition - PMC (nih.gov) (accessed May 2023)
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 senior medical editor Fiona Cowie, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
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