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Giant Cell Tumor

What is a giant cell tumor?

Giant cell tumor of bone is a rare, aggressive non-cancerous tumor. It generally happens in adults between ages 20 and 40 when skeletal bone growth is complete.

It usually develops near a joint at the end of the bone. The location of a giant cell tumor is often in the knee, but can also involve the bones of the arms and the legs. It can also affect the flat bones, such as the breastbone or pelvis.

What causes giant cell tumors?

While the exact cause of giant cell tumors remains unknown. In some cases, they have been linked to Paget disease of bone. This is a chronic bone disorder in which bones become enlarged and misshapen.

What are the symptoms of a giant cell tumor?

The following are the most common symptoms of a giant cell tumor. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • A visible mass
  • Bone fracture
  • Fluid buildup in the joint nearest the affected bone
  • Limited movement in the nearest joint
  • Swelling
  • Pain at the nearest joint

The symptoms of a giant cell tumor may look like other medical problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is a giant cell tumor diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, other tests may include:

  • Biopsy. A test in which tissue samples are removed from the body and examined under a microscope to determine if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.
  • Radionuclide bone scans. A nuclear imaging test used to detect bone diseases and tumors, and to determine the cause of bone pain or inflammation.
  • X-rays. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to make images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film.

How is a giant cell tumor treated?

Specific treatment for giant cell tumors will be determined by your healthcare provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

The goal for treatment of a giant cell tumor is to remove the tumor and prevent bone damage. Treatment may include:

  • Amputation, in severe cases
  • Bone grafting
  • Bone reconstruction
  • Physical therapy to regain strength and mobility
  • Surgery to remove the tumor and any damaged bone

Tumors that can’t be removed surgically can often be controlled and sometimes destroyed with radiation therapy.

Giant cell tumors can come back. Follow-up with your healthcare provider may be required for several years.

Key points about giant cell tumors

A giant cell tumor is a rare, aggressive non-cancerous tumor. It usually develops near a joint at the end of the bone. Most occur in the long bones of the legs and arms.

  • Giant cell tumors most often occur in young adults when skeletal bone growth is complete.
  • The exact cause of giant cell tumors remains unknown.
  • Symptoms may include joint pain, swelling, and limited movement.
  • Diagnostic tests may include X-rays, biopsy, and bone scans.
  • The goal for treatment of a giant cell tumor is to remove the tumor and prevent damage to the affected bone.
  • Tumors that can’t be removed surgically can often be controlled and sometimes destroyed with radiation therapy.
  • Giant cell tumors can come back.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your healthcare provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your healthcare provider if you have questions.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Brown, Kim, APRN
  • Horowitz, Diane, MD