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Bone, Secondary

This information should not be used for self-diagnosis or in place of a qualified physician's care.

Reviewed Nov 2020

The basics
  • Secondary bone cancer started in another part of the body and has spread to the bones through the blood or the lymphatic system. The original cancer is called the primary cancer.
  • Patients with secondary (or metastatic) bone cancers are treated by various BC Cancer Tumour Groups.
  • For healthcare professional information on treating cancer, please see our Cancer Management Guidelines.
  • Secondary bone cancer is also referred to as metastatic bone cancer or bone mets or bone metastases.
  • For primary cancers that begin in the bone, please refer to the separate information page about Bone cancer.

What causes it and who gets it?

Listed below are some of the known risk factors for this cancer. Not all of the risk factors below may cause this cancer, but they may be contributing factors.
  • Secondary bone cancer is caused by the spread of the primary cancer.
  • The cancer cells that have spread to the bone look the same and behave the same as cells from where the cancer started.
  • Primary cancers that are most likely to spread to bone if not stopped in the earlier stages:
    • breast
    • prostate
    • lung
    • thyroid
    • kidney
  • What bones are most likely to get bone mets? The most common places for secondary bone cancer:
    • spine
    • pelvis
    • ribs
    • skull
    • upper arm
    • upper leg bones

Can I help to prevent it?

There is no known method of preventing secondary bone cancer. The best way to avoid bone metastases is to catch the primary cancer in its early stages and treat it successfully.

Screening for this cancer

If a cancer patient experiences unexplained pain, especially in the back, legs, and arms, they should notify their doctor.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Bone pain is the most common symptom
  • Broken bones
  • Spinal Cord Compression may cause numbness or tingling sensations in the arms or legs, difficulty with urination, problems with walking. Spinal cord compression should be treated as soon as possible.
  • Hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood), which may cause symptoms such as:
    • Nausea
    • Loss of appetite
    • Extreme thirst
    • Confusion
    • Fatigue
    • Frequent urination
    • Constipation
Diagnosis & staging


These are tests that may be used to diagnose this type of cancer.
  • X-rays
  • Bone scan
  • A computerized tomography scan (CT Scan) produces a three dimensional image of the tumour. It is used to see how much the cancer has spread and what treatment should be used.
  • A magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI) produces detailed images of the tumour.
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Needle biopsy
  • For more information on tests used to diagnose cancer, see our Recommended Websites, Diagnostic Tests section.

Types and Stages



Cancer therapies can be highly individualized – your treatment may differ from what is described below.

  • Treatment methods depend on the type and origin of the primary cancer. It also depends on the specific areas or bones to which the cancer has spread.
  • Treatment may depend on what treatments you had earlier.
  • Your general health is also a factor in what treatments are possible.
  • Treating the secondary bone cancer usually cannot cure the cancer, but it may help:
    • extend the patient's lifespan
    • improve the quality of life by:
      • relieving pain
      • relieving other symptoms
  • Patients with bone metastases may be referred to our Pain and Symptom Management program.
Systemic Therapy
  • Systemic therapies can include chemotherapy, hormone therapy, immunotherapy and biologic therapies, depending on your primary cancer and your circumstances.
  • Chemotherapy may also be used to treat the primary cancer.
  • Bisphosphonates are drugs that may be given to reduce bone pain and lower the risk of broken bones.
  • Hormone therapy and immunotherapy may be other treatment options
  • Surgery may be used to relieve symptoms, but it is not a cure.
  • Surgery is sometimes needed to reinforce a bone with a metal support to keep it from breaking or to relieve pain if a bone is already broken.
  • Radiation therapy may be used to relieve symptoms.

Follow-up after Treatment

  • Guidelines for follow-up after treatment are covered on our website.
  • You will be returned to the care of your family physician or specialist for regular followup. If you do not have a family physician, please discuss this with your BC Cancer oncologist or nurse.
  • Follow-up testing is based on your type of cancer and your individual circumstances.
  • Life after Cancer focuses on the issues that cancer survivors can face.
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