<< Back

What Are the Early Signs of Bone Cancer? And What Happens Next?

July 17, 2023

Fortunately, as a primary cancer, bone cancer is very rare. Unfortunately, its symptoms aren’t. The early signs of bone cancer are hard to tell apart from much more common (and much less serious) issues.

So how do you know what you’re dealing with?

We asked an orthopedic oncologist to explain.

Interested in connecting with a cancer specialist?

Start hereCall 833.238.0684

In rare cases, pain and swelling may be early signs of bone cancer.

Pain in the bone, and sometimes swelling, is your first alert for bone cancer. In its earliest stages, the pain may come and go, then eventually become more constant. Often, it feels worse at night or during activity.

If this sounds confusingly similar to other kinds of pain, like arthritis or even just a banged shin, it’s because it is. Don’t jump to any conclusions before talking to an expert.

“We see people with hip pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, who worry: Could this be bone cancer? Or is it something super common like arthritis or a muscle strain or tendonitis?” says Adam Lindsay, MD, an orthopedic oncologist and surgeon at Hartford Hospital.

Your health team can help you find the answer.

> Related: These 4 Foods Can Decrease Your Risk of Cancer

Keep in mind: It’s unusual for cancer to start in the bone.

In most cases, bone cancer shows up as a metastatic cancer: cancer that started somewhere else in the body, like lung cancer or breast cancer, and eventually spread to the bone.

As a primary cancer, though, it’s exceedingly rare — especially in adults.

“We diagnosis 5,000 or less primary bone cancers in the U.S. annually, which makes it one of the rarest cancers we treat,” says Dr. Lindsay.

In other words: Unless you’re already living with cancer, odds are your aches and pains are from something else.

> Want more health news? Text StartHere to 85209 to sign up for text alerts

Your health team can find out for sure.

For just about every condition, whether it’s tendonitis or something more serious like cancer, early diagnosis is a key to recovery. Any time you’re experiencing prolonged pain or swelling, talk to your doctor.

“You’ll start with a plain old X-ray and physical exam. Most of the time, we can find a reason for the pain that’s not cancer-related,” says Dr. Lindsay.

If needed, your team will order additional tests to confirm your diagnosis — for example, an MRI, CT scan or biopsy.

If you’re diagnosed with bone cancer, you’re in the right hands.

Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute is a leader in cancer care, including the rarest types like primary bone cancer. Dr. Lindsay’s team specializes in complicated limb-sparing surgeries, which remove the cancerous bone and reconstruct it using a bone graft or prosthesis.

One young adult was diagnosed with primary bone cancer from her shoulder almost to her elbow. After limb-sparing surgery, her cancer is gone, her shoulder joint and arm bone have been successfully reconstructed, and she’s returning to the lacrosse field.

“We have a great multidisciplinary team,” says Dr. Lindsay. “It takes a lot of different subspecialties to manage these problems, from medical oncology to radiation oncology to orthopedic oncology. And we have it all at Hartford Hospital.”