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Bones, lungs, and the liver are the most common places for cancer cells to spread, or "metastasize."

Once in the bone, these cancer cells can form new metastatic tumors. Do you then have bone cancer? No. You still have the type of cancer you were diagnosed with, except now it is metastatic. For example, breast cancer that spreads is known as "metastatic breast cancer." Metastatic cancers in the bone are also called bone metastases, or bone "mets."

Here are the types of cancer that are most likely to metastasize to the bone and what treatments can provide relief.

Bone Metastasis: Cancers that Commonly Spread to Bone

Bone metastasis is more likely with cancers such as:

  • Breast
  • Prostate
  • Lung
  • Kidney
  • Thyroid

About three out of four cases of bone metastasis result from tumors in the breast, prostate, lung, or kidney. Almost 70% of people with advanced breast or prostate cancer have bone metastasis; bone is commonly the first area of metastasis for these cancers.

How and Why Cancers Metastasize to Bones

The spread of cancer to bone is a complex process that doctors are just beginning to understand. Metastasis typically involves the following process:

Cancer cells invade normal tissue nearby, then move through the walls of nearby lymph or blood vessels and begin circulating through the lymphatic system and bloodstream to reach other parts of the body. After stopping in small blood vessels at a further location, they invade the blood vessel walls and migrate into surrounding tissue where they multiply and form smaller tumors. Those new tumors need a blood supply for continued growth, so they stimulate the growth of new blood vessels.

Once they've reached the bone, cancer cells must avoid attacks from the body's immune system. So they may go through more changes. This means the new tumor may be somewhat different from the primary tumor. This can make it more difficult to treat.


Why and Where Tumors Form in Bones

The type of cancer may have something to do with why tumors form in bones. Certain cancers may release proteins that affect how a tumor forms.

Bones provide fertile ground for the growth of tumor cells because they are areas of constant cell turnover and growth. And bone cells release substances that may prompt faster cancer growth. Cancer cells may also attach better to bone than to other substances in the body for some reason.

Cancer cells can go anywhere, but they often go to the bones with the greatest blood supply. This includes bones in the:

  • Spine
  • Pelvis
  • Ribs
  • Upper arms
  • Thighs

Bone Metastasis and Its Symptoms

In some cases, areas of bone are destroyed (osteolytic). In other cases, new bone may form in response to bone metastasis (osteoblastic).

In many cases of cancer such as breast cancer, either – or both -- bone destruction and new bone formation may occur.

Bone mets symptoms include:

  • Bone pain
  • Broken bones, as a result of weakening from the metastasis
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, extreme thirst, and other symptoms from excess calcium in the blood; as bone becomes destroyed by the metastatic tumor, the bone releases calcium into the bloodstream.
  • Compression of the spinal cord if cancer in a bone of the spine grows and puts pressure on the spinal cord; this can cause nerve symptoms of numbness, weakness, urinary problems, and paralysis.

How Cancer Spreads to Bones

See what bone metastasis does to your bones, and how to fight back.
View slideshow