Bone cancer is a rare form of cancer that can develop in the bones of the face or skull.

Bone cancer may be primary or secondary. Primary bone cancer starts in the bones and accounts for less than 1% of all cancer cases. Secondary bone cancer occurs when cancer that starts in another area of the body, such as the lung, prostate, or breast, spreads to the bone.

Primary and secondary bone cancer can both develop in the bones of the face or skull, though in children and teens, they typically develop in the faster-growing bones of the legs or arms. Older adults have a higher chance of experiencing bone cancer in the jaw and other areas.

This article reviews bone cancer in the face and skull, its causes and risk factors, symptoms, treatments, and more.

X-ray image of two human skullsShare on Pinterest
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Bone cancer can develop in the bones of the skull, but it typically develops in the faster-growing bones, such as the longer bones of the arms and legs, in younger individuals. Still, it can occur in any bone in the body, including those of the skull.

Primary bone cancer is rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cancer cases. Skull cancer is rarer still, accounting for about 1% of all bone cancers.

Bone cancer typically causes pain at the site of the tumor, but not everyone will experience this symptom.

For some, the first symptom may be the presence of a lump, a mass, or swelling in the area. When this occurs, a person may develop visible deformity in the affected part of the face.

Typically, tumors that form in the face are a type of osteoma. These are slow-growing, benign (noncancerous) tumors. When they occur, they often affect young males around the sinuses or jaw bones.

Researchers do not yet know exactly what causes primary bone cancers. Experts suspect that the main cause is an acquired genetic mutation that occurs within the cells of the bones.

While these mutations may pass from a parent to a child, they are more likely to occur during the course of a person’s life either spontaneously (with no underlying cause) or due to exposure to certain stimuli, such as radiation.

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chances of developing bone cancer in the face or other bones.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean a person will develop bone cancer, but it does mean they have a higher risk compared with those who do not share the same risk factors.

Similarly, a person may develop bone cancer despite having no known risk factors.

Most bone cancers do not have any known risk factors. Experts note that the following are possible risk factors for the most common form of bone cancer, osteosarcoma:

  • having previous radiation exposure
  • being of advanced or older age
  • being male
  • having noncancerous bone conditions, such as Paget disease or fibrous dysplasia
  • living with hereditary multiple osteochondromas
  • having inherited conditions such as Rothmund-Thomson syndrome or retinoblastoma

Bone cancer may not cause symptoms.

Often, the first symptom a person notices is pain in the area of the tumor on the face.

Another common symptom is the development of a lump or mass, which a person may feel or see under the skin. Swelling may occur around the lump. This can lead to further deformity of the face.

Other possible symptoms may include:

  • weakened bones leading to fractures
  • weight loss
  • fatigue

Symptoms may also develop differently based on whether the cancer spreads to other areas in the body, such as the lungs.

Since bone cancer is rare, it is much more likely that a person’s symptoms are due to other, benign conditions.

Diagnosis may begin when a person visits a doctor due to their symptoms, which may include pain or a noticeable lump.

A doctor typically uses several diagnostic tools to determine whether a person’s symptoms are due to bone cancer or another underlying cause. Some common ways a doctor will check for bone cancer include:

  • reviewing personal and family medical history
  • performing imaging tests of the affected area, such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI
  • performing a biopsy, which involves examining a small sample of an affected area of bone
  • doing blood tests, which can help a doctor stage the cancer

Treatments for bone cancer in the face or other areas of the body can vary and include both surgical and nonsurgical options.

Surgical treatments for cancers that occur in the limbs may involve removing the affected limb to get rid of the cancer.

On the face, this may not be possible, but a doctor may be able to cut away the tumor. A doctor will remove the tumor and some healthy tissue and then replace the missing section with bone tissue from elsewhere. This tissue may come from a donor or another area of the body, or a doctor may use prosthetic bone to reform the facial structure. Today, doctors are able to use 3D modeling to create a prosthesis that exactly matches the shape of the excised bone.

A doctor may also recommend the use of radiation or chemotherapy to help destroy the tumor.

The 5-year relative survival rate for bone cancer is about 68.9%. That means that from the time of diagnosis, people with bone cancer are about 68.9% as likely to survive for 5 years as those without cancer.

It is important to remember that no two cases of cancer are the same. An individual can speak with their doctor about their unique circumstances.

Several factors can affect survivability, such as age, stage of the cancer, and overall health. A person’s doctor is typically best equipped to determine their outlook.

Bone cancer can form on the face. If it does, it may cause pain and deformity. Bone cancer is a rare form of cancer, and its formation in the bones of the face or skull is even more rare.

Experts still do not know the exact cause of bone cancer, but they know of a few factors that increase a person’s risk of developing it.

Diagnosis often involves an examination, biopsy, and imaging studies. Treatment may be surgical or include chemotherapy and radiation.