What is sarcoma? Understanding this very singular cancer
What is sarcoma?
A sarcoma is a rare kind of cancer that is different from the much more common carcinomas because they happen in a different kind of tissue.
Sarcomas grow in connective tissue that are cells that connect or support other kinds of tissue in your body, and these tumors are most common in the bones, muscles, tendons, cartilage, nerves, fat, and blood vessels of your arms and legs, even though they can also happen in other areas of the body.
These types of cancer can be grouped into two main kinds: soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma, or osteosarcoma. About 12,750 cases of soft tissue sarcoma and 800-900 new cases of bone sarcomas will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2019.
Sarcomas can be treated, often by having surgery to remove the tumor.
Sarcoma Risk Factors
It is still unknown what causes sarcoma, but there are some things that raise the risk of developing one:
- Other people in the family have had sarcoma
- The patient has a bone disorder called Paget’s disease
- The patient has a genetic disorder such as neurofibromatosis, Gardner syndrome, retinoblastoma, or Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- The patient has been exposed to radiation, perhaps during treatment for an earlier cancer
Soft tissue sarcomas are hard to spot, because they can grow anywhere in the body. Most often, the first sign is a painless lump and, as the lump gets bigger, it might press against nerves or muscles and make the patient uncomfortable or give trouble breathing, or both. There are no tests that can find these tumors before they cause symptoms that you notice.
Osteosarcoma can show obvious early symptoms, including:
- Pain off and on in the affected bone, which may be worse at night
- Swelling, which often starts weeks after the pain
- A limp, if the sarcoma is in the leg
- Children and young adults get osteosarcoma more often than adults. And because healthy, active children and teens often have pain and swelling in their arms and legs, osteosarcoma might be mistaken for growing pains or a sports injury. If a child’s pain doesn’t get better, gets worse at night, and is in one arm or leg rather than both, it is better to talk to a doctor.
Adults who have this kind of pain should see a doctor right away.
If a doctor thinks its patient may have a sarcoma, they will probably need a full exam and tests, including:
- A sample of cells from the tumor, called a biopsy
- Imaging tests, such as a CT scan, an ultrasound, or an MRI, to help see inside the body
- A bone scan, if patient might have osteosarcoma
How the sarcoma is treated depends on what type the patient has, where in the body it is, how developed it is, and whether or not it has spread to other parts of the body, or metastasized.
Surgery takes the tumor out of the body. In most cases of osteosarcoma, the doctor can remove just the cancer cells, and the patient won’t need the arm or leg removed, too.
Radiation can shrink the tumor before surgery or kill cancer cells that are left after surgery. It could be the main treatment, if surgery isn’t an option.
Chemotherapy drugs can also be used with or instead of surgery. Chemo is often the first treatment when the cancer has spread.
Targeted therapies are newer treatments that use drugs or manmade versions of antibodies from the immune system to block the growth of cancer cells while leaving normal cells undamaged.
Most people diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma are cured by surgery alone, if the tumor is low-grade; that means it is not likely to spread to other parts of the body. More aggressive sarcomas are harder to treat successfully.
The survival rate for osteosarcoma is between 60% and 75% if the cancer has not spread outside the area it started. It is more likely to be cured if all of the cancer can be removed by surgery.