Bone Metastasis

Metastatic tumors are cancers that started in another location and spread to the bones.  More than 90% of all these metastatic lesions in bone are caused by a small number of primary tumors all of which are listed below. Patients with metastatic bone tumors do not need to lose hope, because new treatments and new hope is available. One new technique is the aggressive removal of the metastatic lesions for maximum functional restoration. (more) Make sure you or your loved one is receiving the most thorough care appropriate for the bone tumor problem they have.

Bone is the third most common site of metastatic disease. Cancers most likely to metastasize to bone include breast, lung, prostate, thyroid and kidney. Carcinomas are much more likely to metastasize to bone than sarcomas. The axial skeleton is seeded more than the appendicular skeleton, partly due to the persistence of red bone marrow in the former. The ribs, pelvis and spine are normally the first bones involved and distal bones are rarely affected. Metastases are established when a single tumor cell or a clump of cells gain access to the blood stream, reach the bone marrow through blood vessels in Haversian canals, extravasate, multiply and neovascularize. Batson's vertebral venous plexus allows cells to enter the vertebral circulation without first passing through the lungs. The sluggish blood flow in this plexus is more conducive to tumor survival, accounting for the high rate of prostate cancer metastasis to the spine.

Pain, pathological fractures and hypercalcemia are the major sources of morbidity with bone metastasis. Pain is the most common symptom found in 70% of patients with bone metastases. l Pain is caused by stretching of the periosteum by the tumor as well as nerve stimulation in the endosteum. Pathological fractures are most common in breast cancer due to the lytic nature of the lesions. They are uncommon in lung cancer due to short life span and rare in prostate cancer which tend to be osteoblastic lesions. Hypercalcemia only occurs in 10% of patients.2

Lytic bone metastases must be greater than 1 cm and have destroyed 30-50% of the bone density 3 in order to be seen by x-ray. It is also difficult to distinguish between metastases and benign lesions such as Paget's disease or osteoporosis on plain film. On bone scan, radiolabeled bisphosphonates are taken up by in areas of bone formation but not by the tumor cells. CT is more specific than bone scan and can distinguish between osteolytic and osteoblastic lesions. MRI is the most sensitive method of detection bone metastases because cells can spotted before local bone reaction has occurred.
Metastatic bone lesions can be described as osteolytic, osteoblastic and mixed. The osteolytic lesions are most common where the destructive processes outstrip the laying down of new bone. New treatments with medicines that may block bone lysis by tumor cells are currently in clinical trials. Osteoblastic lesions result from new bone growth that is stimulated by the tumor. Microscopically, most lesions are mixed.

Treatment for bone metastasis is normally palliative. An assessment of the risk of pathological fracture must be made by an experienced orthopaedic surgeon. Lesions that do not represent a risk for fracture may be treated with radiation or by appropriate chemotherapy directed at the tumor. Lesions that are regarded as a risk for pathologic fracture should be surgically stabilized on an elective basis before a fracture occurs. The goals of surgery are to preserve stability and function of the musculoskeletal system as well as alleviate pain. Emergency surgery is done for spinal metastasis in the hope of preserving neurological function.

l Vinholes, J. et al., Effects of Bone Metastases on Bone Metabolism: Implications for Diagnosis, Imaging and Assessment of Response to Cancer Treatment, Cancer Treatment Reviews 22:289-331, 1996. 2 Stoll, B. and Parbhoo, S., Bone Metastasis, Raven Press Books, Ltd.:New York, NY, 1983, p. 14. 3 Vinholes, et al. 1/14/98 8:46 AM 1



New for physicians: A guide to the assessment of pathological fracture risk.


Go to a specific discussion of metastatic tumors arising from:

Breast cancer

Prostate cancer

Lung cancer

Kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma)

Thyroid cancer

Cancers of the GI tract (colon, stomach, etc.)

See a general discussion of skeletal metastases (spread of cancer to the bones) of these cancers here.

See how to figure the risk of pathological fracture of a bone that has been weakened by on of these metastatic lesions here.

Bisphosphonate medications: a powerful tool that can prevent cancers from spreading to the bone, and slow the growth cancers that have already spread to the bones.

Breast cancer

Lung cancer

Kidney cancer

Prostate cancer


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