Rare Cancer Affects Connective Tissues
Sarcoma is a rare cancer of the connective tissues that hold the body together, including the muscles, tendons, blood vessels, fat, nerves, deep skin tissue, bones and cartilage. One percent 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 symptoms and seek care from a highly specialized team.
Types and Symptoms of Sarcoma
“Sarcoma is a cancer of the connective tissues, and as such, can occur in any part of the body,” explains Jeffrey D. Wayne, MD, Northwestern Medicine Chief of Surgical Oncology and Associate Director for Clinical Operations at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Sarcoma is generally divided into two main categories, osteosarcoma and soft tissue sarcoma:
- Osteosarcoma. Osteosarcoma, or bone sarcoma, is a malignant tumor of the bone. Unlike cancer that starts elsewhere and spreads to the bones, osteosarcoma generally starts 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.
- Soft tissue sarcoma. Soft tissue sarcoma is a rare cancer that occurs in the muscles, fat, blood vessels, tendons, fibrous tissues and synovial tissues (tissues around joints).
Sarcoma can start anywhere in the body, and the symptoms may depend on where it starts. The first symptom of sarcoma is usually a painless lump. As the tumor grows and begins to press against nearby nerves and muscles, pain or soreness can occur. In some cases, individuals don't experience any symptoms until the advanced stages of the cancer.
But, there are many types of lumps in the soft tissues of the body, and 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, may be fixed 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 dicate treatment.”
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.” Together, the team at Northwestern Medicine creates a tailored plan that not only treats the cancer, but preserves the surrounding tissue to help avoid limb loss.
Help protect yourself and your loved ones from sarcoma by understanding the risk factors and symptoms.