Measles Information

Microscopic view of a sarcoma.
Microscopic view of a sarcoma.

What Is Sarcoma?

A Rare Cancer Explained

Sarcoma is a rare cancer of the connective tissues that hold the body together, including the muscles, tendons, blood vessels, fat, nerves, bones and cartilage. Sarcoma is sometimes confused with carcinoma, a more common type of cancer. Carcinoma starts in tissue that lines the inner or outer parts of the body, like your skin or the lining of your liver and other organs.

In the United States, 1% of all adult cancers are sarcoma, but it accounts for 15% of all childhood cancers. Its rarity and unique nature can make sarcoma difficult to detect and accurately diagnose quickly. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the condition the symptoms and when to seek care from a highly specialized team.

Two Categories of Sarcoma

There are more than 50 types of sarcoma, and they are generally divided into two main categories, bone sarcoma and soft tissue sarcoma:

Bone sarcoma is a cancer that starts in the bone. Unlike cancer that starts elsewhere and spreads to the bones, bone sarcoma generally forms in the cells that grow into new bone tissue, most often in the ends of the long bones of the body, such as the arms and legs. The most common types of bone sarcoma are:

Soft tissue sarcoma is a cancer that occurs in the muscles, fat, blood vessels, tendons, fibrous tissues and synovial tissues (tissues around joints). While it can start in any part of the body, it’s often found in the arms, legs, chest and belly.

Are There Symptoms, Like a Lump?

“Sarcoma is a cancer of the connective tissues, and as such, can occur in any part of the body,” says Northwestern Medicine and Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University Sarcoma Surgeon Jeffrey D. Wayne, MD. Because there are so many types and starting points of sarcoma, symptoms vary widely and often overlap with symptoms for other, more common, conditions. A first symptom can be a painless lump. As the lump grows and begins to press against nearby nerves and muscles, pain or soreness can occur. Some people don't experience any symptoms until the cancer is more advanced.

While there are many types of lumps in the soft tissues of the body, most of them are not cancerous. Noncancerous lumps can include lipomas or fatty tumors, fluid-filled cysts and hemangiomas, which are collections of abnormal blood vessels. Dr. Wayne suggests paying attention to lumps that appear quite suddenly, seem to be attached to connective tissues and are firm to the touch.

Even though most of these lumps may be benign, appropriate testing is important. “After testing, a specialty center can perform biopsy through a needle,” says Dr. Wayne. If it is cancerous, early diagnosis can help keep it from spreading. “The most important thing is determining what it is and what type, which will then dictate treatment,” he says.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Pain and or swelling in your arm, leg, belly, pelvis or back
  • Blood in your stool that appears black
  • Limited range of motion in a joint
  • A bone break without cause

If you notice any unusual symptoms, talk with your primary care clinician.

Is Sarcoma Curable?

If a sarcoma tumor is found before it spreads from where it started, surgical treatment is common and can lead to a cure. Like with any cancer, though, there is a chance of recurrence. If sarcoma has spread to other parts of the body, which is considered stage IV, it is rarely curable but can be managed through various treatments.

The Evolution of Sarcoma Treatment

Sarcoma treatment has made great strides in recent years. “We’re invested in research and clinical trials to create new advances in this field,” says Dr. Wayne. “This is a tumor group for which a lot of the standard therapies decades ago would have been very radical, such as requiring amputation. In current times, we work as a multidisciplinary team of physicians who are all specialized in this type of cancer.”

These treatment types have shown promise in treating sarcoma, reducing side effects and improving quality of life:

  • Targeted therapy (medications that target specific weaknesses in cancer cells)
  • Immunotherapy (medications that use your own immune system to fight cancer)
  • Limb-sparing surgical techniques
  • Precision radiation therapies

Learn more about cancer treatment types.

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