Sarcoma: The Basics

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed: April 02, 2023

Sarcoma is a cancer that can affect your bones or soft tissues (also called connective tissue). Soft tissues are:

  • Muscles
  • Tendons.
  • Fibrous tissues.
  • Fat.
  • Blood vessels.
  • Nerves.
  • Synovial tissues.

Sarcoma is caused by cells in these tissues growing out of control and forming a tumor. There are over 40 types of sarcoma. Each kind of sarcoma is named based on the type of cells that have cancer in them. Sarcoma that has spread from the bone or soft tissue to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risk Factors

Some risk factors for sarcoma are:

  • A history of radiation therapy. The area where the radiation was directed has a higher risk.
  • Some genetic diseases (passed down from your parents). Examples are Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, Von Recklinghausen's Disease, Tuberous sclerosis, Familial adenomatous polyposis, and Gorlin syndrome.
  • Exposure to some chemicals.
  • Chronic lymphedema (a backup of lymphatic fluid in a part of your body).

Screening

There are no screening tests for sarcoma.

Symptoms of Sarcoma

Symptoms depend on where in the body the sarcoma starts.

In the Soft Tissue:

  • Mass or lump, with or without swelling, and sometimes pain.
  • A sarcoma in the abdomen (belly) can cause belly or back pain.
  • Sarcoma in the GI tract can cause diarrhea, constipation, blood in stool, or belly pain.
  • Uterine sarcoma can cause vaginal bleeding, swelling, or pain in the pelvic area.

In the Bone:

  • Pain, with or without a mass that can be felt.

Diagnosis of Sarcoma

Sarcoma is very rare, and it is important to find a provider that has experience with this type of cancer. If it is thought you may have sarcoma, more testing will be done. These tests may include:

The tests that are done depend on where the sarcoma is thought to be.

Staging Sarcoma

To guide treatment, sarcoma is "staged." This stage is based on:

  • Size of the tumor.
  • Histologic grade (how different the cells look compared to normal cells).
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Stages range from stage I (more limited disease) to stage IV (advanced disease).

Treatment

Treatment plans depend on the size and location of the tumor, the grade (aggressiveness), and if it has spread. Each case of sarcoma is unique and will be treated differently. Below are general treatments for sarcoma:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor, which may include amputation if the sarcoma is in a leg or arm.
  • Radiation can be done before, during, or after surgery to kill cancer cells and to keep the cancer from coming back (recurring).
  • Chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink the tumor to make surgery easier, or after surgery to prevent recurrence.

This article is a basic guide sarcoma. You can learn more about your type of sarcoma and treatment by using the links below.

Soft Tissue Sarcoma: Staging and Treatment

All About Sarcomas of the Bone

All About Osteosarcoma

Resources for More Information: Sarcoma

References

American Cancer Society. (2019). What is soft tissue sarcoma? Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/soft-tissue-sarcoma/about/soft-tissue-sarcoma.html

American Cancer Society. (2021). Key statistics for soft tissue sarcoma. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/soft-tissue-sarcoma/about/key-statistics.html

National Cancer Institute. (2020). Adult Soft Tissue Sarcoma Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/types/soft-tissue-sarcoma/patient/adult-soft-tissue-treatment-pdq

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