What Is Chondrosarcoma?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 22, 2024
4 min read

If you find out that you have chondrosarcoma, it means you have a rare type of bone cancer. Usually, it grows and spreads slowly. Your doctor will likely suggest you get surgery to take out the tumor.

What sets chondrosarcoma apart from other kinds of bone cancer is that it usually begins in your cartilage. That's the tough, flexible material that cushions your bones and joints.

Most of the time, chondrosarcoma shows up in the thigh bone, upper arm bone, shoulders, ribs, or pelvis. It doesn't happen often, but you can get it in the muscles, nerves, and other soft tissue of your arms and legs.

It isn't like other cancers that can make you feel sick and wiped out. Instead, you get symptoms right in the area of the tumor.

You might feel an aching pain that slowly gets worse. It can be especially bad at night or with physical activity, and rest doesn't usually help.

It may limit how well you can move that part of your body, and it might cause you to limp.

You might also have:

  • A large lump or growth on your bone
  • Problems peeing if the tumor is in your pelvis
  • Stiffness, swelling, tenderness, or a feeling of pressure around the tumor

It's most common in adults over age 40, but doctors usually don't know what causes it. Typically, it starts in normal cartilage, but it can also grow out of certain bone conditions.

You're more likely to get chondrosarcoma if you have:

Enchondromas. These are benign tumors, meaning they're not cancer. They can show up on their own or with problems like Maffucci syndrome and Ollier disease.

Multiple exostoses syndrome. This gives your bones small bumps made of cartilage.

If you've ever had high doses of radiation for cancer treatment, that can raise your odds, too.

It can be hard to tell a benign tumor from a slow-growing chondrosarcoma, and the symptoms can sometimes look like some other bone problem, such as an infection. Your doctor will ask you to get some tests to figure out what's going on.

Physical exam. Your doctor will check your body and ask questions about your health history, including your symptoms and any illnesses that run in your family.

Imaging tests. You may get some of these:

  • Bone scans show damage and where the cancer has spread. You take a substance with a low amount of radioactivity that gets soaked up by cancer cells. Those areas, called hot spots, look dark gray or black on the image.
  • CT scans are powerful X-rays that make detailed pictures inside your body. They help your doctor find the cancer and see if it moved into other areas.
  • MRIs use powerful magnets and radio waves to make pictures of organs and structures. They can show the outline of a tumor.
  • PET scans use radioactive tracers to look inside you and help figure out if a tumor is cancer or not. They can also see if it has spread and find its exact location.
  • X-rays show the tumor's location, shape, and size.

Biopsy. This is when your doctor takes a sample of the tumor to test for cancer. It can be done with a needle or surgery.

You may hear your doctor talk about the "grade" of your cancer. It's a way to describe how fast your tumor is growing and how likely it will spread. It can help your doctor decide the best treatment.

  • Low grade (I) is slow-growing and can often be treated with surgery. It's also less likely to come back after treatment.
  • Intermediate grade (II) grows and spreads more quickly.
  • High grade (III) spreads the quickest.

It depends on the size, location, and grade of your tumor, as well as your age and overall health.

Surgery. This is the main type of treatment and will depend on the size and location of the tumor. Your doctor removes the tumor, along with some of the nearby healthy tissue to make sure to get all the cancer out.

That means you might lose some bone, cartilage, and muscle. If so, you may need an implant, bone graft, cement, or rods and screws to support your bone. If the cancer is near a joint, like a hip or knee, you may need to get it replaced.

If it's in your arm or leg, your doctor will do everything possible to try and keep your limb. But it can't always be done. In that case, you'll get a man-made one in its place (a prosthetic limb)..

Cryosurgery. To lower the odds that the cancer returns, your doctor might also put liquid nitrogen in the area where the tumor was. It freezes and kills any cancer cells that might have been missed.

Physical therapy. To get full use of your body back, you'll typically need a lot of rehab. This is a key part of recovery and may take some time.

Radiation therapy. You'd only get this for a high-grade tumor. It may need to be a high dose to work well.