Giant Cell Tumor

What is a giant cell tumor?

A giant cell tumor is one that is made up of a large number of benign (noncancerous) cells that form an aggressive tumor. 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, or the flat bones such as the breastbone or pelvis.

Giant cell tumors most often occur in young adults when skeletal bone growth is complete.

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. Paget disease of the bone is a chronic bone disorder in which bones become enlarged and deformed.

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:

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

The symptoms of a giant cell tumor may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is a giant cell tumor diagnosed?

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

  • X-rays. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film.
  • Radionuclide bone scans. A nuclear imaging method used to assess any joint changes to detect bone diseases and tumors, and to determine the cause of bone pain or inflammation.
  • Biopsy. A procedure in which tissue samples are removed (with a needle or during surgery) from the body for exam under a microscope to determine if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.

How is a giant cell tumor treated?

Specific treatment for giant cell tumors will be determined by your doctor 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:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor and any damaged bone
  • Bone grafting, a surgical procedure in which healthy bone is transplanted from another part of the body into the affected area.
  • Bone reconstruction
  • Amputation may be required in severe cases
  • Physical therapy to regain strength and mobility

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

Giant cell tumors can recur. Follow-up with a doctor may be required for several years.

Key points about giant cell tumors

A giant cell tumor is one that is made up of a large number of benign cells that form an aggressive tumor, usually near the end of the bone near a joint. 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 procedures 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 recur.

Next steps

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

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

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