A sarcoma is a rare type of cancer, making up only 1% of all adult cancer diagnoses and about 15% of childhood cancer diagnoses.
The difference from other cancers lies in the location – it occurs in the bones and connective tissue. Connective tissues are made up of cells that connect or support other kinds of tissue in your body. These are: the bones, muscles, tendons, cartilage, nerves, fat and blood vessels in your arms and legs. They can also occur in other areas of the body.
- 40% occur in your lower extremities (legs, ankles, feet).
- 15% occur in your upper extremities (shoulders, arms, wrists, hands).
- 30% occur in your trunk/chest wall/abdomen/pelvis.
- 15% occur in your head and neck.
There are more than 50 types of sarcoma, but they can be broadly divided into bone (osteosarcoma) and soft tissue tumours.
Primary bone sarcoma is cancer that starts in the bone. Types of primary bone sarcoma include:
Metastatic bone cancer starts in another location, for example an organ, and then travels to the bone. It often originates from your thyroid, lung, kidney, breast or prostate.
Symptoms of bone cancer
The first sign of sarcoma may be the appearance of a new lump underneath the skin. But a lump is not proof of cancer. Some sarcomas may not cause any symptoms until they grow and press on nearby nerves, organs, or muscles. Their growth may cause pain, a feeling of fullness, or breathing problems. Unfortunately, these can be confused with many other medical conditions.
How osteosarcoma is diagnosed
This is often the first test done if a bone tumour is suspected. Doctors can often recognise a bone tumour such as an osteosarcoma based on plain x-rays of the bone.
Soft tissue sarcomas
Soft tissue sarcomas begin in the muscle or other connective tissues of your body. Unlike bone sarcomas, most soft tissue sarcomas occur in adults. Certain types of sarcoma, such as rhabdomyosarcoma, are found mostly in children.
Types of soft tissue sarcomas include:
- Desmoplastic small round cell tumors
- Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST)
- Malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor
- Malignant schwannoma
- Synovial sarcoma
- Undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma
Symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma
Soft tissue sarcomas often have no obvious symptoms in the early stages. They can cause symptoms as they get bigger or spread. The symptoms depend on where the cancer develops.
Swelling under the skin may cause a painless lump that cannot easily be moved around and gets bigger over time. Swelling in the abdomen may cause abdominal pain, a persistent feeling of fullness and constipation. Swelling near the lungs may cause a cough or breathlessness.
You should see a GP if you have a lump – particularly one that\’s getting bigger over time. It’s more likely that you have a non-cancerous condition, such as a cyst or lipoma (fatty lump), but it\’s important to have your symptoms checked.
How soft tissue sarcoma is diagnosed
If an oncologist suspects sarcoma, they should first order an MRI, CT scan, or PET scan to see inside the patient’s body, and then take a biopsy of cells inside the lump, working with a pathologist to determine the precise type and stage of sarcoma. From there, doctors will determine the best form of treatment: surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or targeted therapy.
It is important to consult a team of medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists with experience in treating sarcoma for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Sarcoma Risk Factors
The cause of sarcoma is unknown but there are certain things that appear to raise your risk of getting it:
- Other people in your family have had sarcoma
- You have a bone disorder called Paget\’s disease
- You have a genetic disorder such as neurofibromatosis, Gardner syndrome, retinoblastoma, or Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- You\’re been exposed to radiation, perhaps during treatment for an earlier cancer
For support and connection on your journey with sarcoma go here, there are resources to help guide and educate you.