Determining the site of the primary cancer in patients with skeletal metastasis of unknown origin: a retrospective study

Cancer. 1999 Aug 1;86(3):533-7. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-0142(19990801)86:3<533::aid-cncr24>;2-1.


Background: When skeletal metastasis is the presenting problem and the primary site is occult, there is a need to identify the primary site as soon as possible. However, the search for the primary tumor is often time-consuming and difficult. The purpose of this study was to analyze the efficacy of particular diagnostic approaches and to devise an efficient and optimal diagnostic strategy.

Methods: Among 213 patients with skeletal metastasis treated between 1990 and 1996 were 64 in whom skeletal lesions were the first manifestation of malignancy. The authors retrospectively analyzed both the final diagnosis and the process by which it was made in these 64 cases.

Results: The primary cancer was identified antemortem in 56 (88%) of the 64 patients by examination and in 3 patients at autopsy. Lung carcinoma, the most frequently observed primary lesion, was identified in 23 patients. Other primary lesions were prostate carcinoma in 11 patients, breast carcinoma in 5, and hepatocellular carcinoma in 5. The primary malignancy was not determined in 5 patients. Thoracic and abdominal computed tomography (CT) scans were useful, especially in the diagnosis of patients with lung, hepatocellular, renal cell, and pancreatic carcinomas. Tumor markers were abnormally elevated in 73% of patients with carcinomas.

Conclusions: Although thoracic and abdominal CT scans were useful, examination of the gastrointestinal tract and pelvic CT scan seldom revealed the primary lesion and therefore should not be performed as an initial routine study in the absence of abdominal symptoms. Tumor markers are useful in differentiating carcinoma from hematologic malignancy and primary bone tumor.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / blood
  • Bone Neoplasms / blood
  • Bone Neoplasms / secondary*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Liver Neoplasms / pathology
  • Lung Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Lung Neoplasms / pathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / blood
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasms, Unknown Primary / pathology
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed


  • Biomarkers, Tumor