What Is Osteosarcoma? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

What is an osteosarcoma? It's a form of a cancer, specifically a tumor that grows in the bone. Read this to learn the symptoms of an osteosarcoma, as well as how they are typically treated.

What is an Osteosarcoma?

An osteosarcoma is a cancerous tumor that grows in a bone, and sometimes it can start in the bone and move to other parts of the body. In fact, it's the most common type of cancer that develops in the bones. These tumors often stem from osteoblasts, which are cells responsible for the formation of new bone. This type of tumor is most prominent around the knee (or around the edges of any long bone in the body) and tends to affect teenagers and children. They may be classified as low-grade, intermediate-grade, or high-grade osteosarcoma; these grades basically indicate the likelihood the cancer will spread to other parts of the body, with high-grade being the fast growing with a higher likelihood of spreading and low-grade a slow growing cancer.

A X-ray of an osteosarcoma on the knee

Causes of Osteosarcomas

As with many forms of cancer, the exact cause of osteosarcomas developing is not yet known; however, a number of risk factors have been identified. For example, male children and teenagers are the most likely victims of osteosarcomas. Specifically, this type of cancer is most common in boys who are between the ages of 10 and 30 and unusually tall for their age. Additionally, it's more common in African Americans than it is in those of Caucasian descent. It's also more prevalent in people with a history of bone disease or radiation therapy treatment, as well.

Symptoms of Osteosarcomas

This type of cancer is usually diagnosed as a result of the patient seeking help for the symptoms. The knee or shoulder areas are most often affected, and osteosarcomas cause pain and swelling in the affected area. In fact, pain and swelling are the most common symptoms. Unfortunately, pain and swelling are common 'growing pains' in kids, often delaying identification of the osteosarcoma. With some types of osteosarcomas, bones can weaken and then break, though actual breaks are relatively rare. Additional symptoms come as secondary side effects as a result of treatment options or outcomes. As with any serious surgery (or cancer treatment), there are emotional side effects that have lasting effects on patients, as often their life changes considerably.

Treatment Options

Major medical advancements have been made since the first osteosarcomas were diagnosed, and now a combination of chemotherapy and surgery is often enough to fully remove the cancer. In some cases, radiation therapy may be appropriate, but since each case is unique, it's best to work with medical professionals in determining proper treatment. Sometimes amputations are necessary, though these are obviously a last-case scenario.

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