What you need to know about this rare and complex cancer.
Sarcomas are rare cancers that begin in the bones and soft connective tissues. There are more than 70 different types, but they all fall into two main categories:
- Soft tissue sarcomas, which are found in the tissues that connect, support, and surround other body structures, such as muscles, fat, nerves, joints, blood vessels, and deep skin tissues. Soft tissue sarcomas are more common in adults.
- Bone sarcomas, which are more common in children.
According to the National Cancer Institute, about 12,000 cases of soft tissue sarcoma and 3,000 cases of bone sarcoma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
Because sarcomas are complex cancers, patients should choose a specialized team that has expertise in managing these challenging cancers.
At MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper, patients with sarcomas are under the care of our Orthopaedic Oncology Program team and the Rare Cancer Program team. These groups of specialized physicians, nurses, and other cancer experts have extensive experience in diagnosing and treating sarcomas and other types of rare cancers.
The Orthopaedic Oncology team includes orthopaedic oncologists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, reconstructive surgeons, pathologists, and support and recovery specialists, including physical therapists and integrative oncologists. The team at MD Anderson at Cooper cares for patients age 16 and older.
Risk Factors for Sarcoma
Although we don’t know the cause of most sarcomas, several factors could increase a person’s risk of having this type of cancer, including:
- History of Radiation Treatment. Patients who have received radiation therapy for previous cancers may have a higher risk of sarcoma.
- Personal or Family History of Certain Genetic Disorders. Genetic disorders, such as Von Recklinghausen’s disease (neurofibromatosis), Gardner syndrome, Werner syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and retinoblastoma can increase the risk of sarcoma.
- Chemical Exposure. Exposure to vinyl chloride monomer (used to make some plastics), dioxin, or arsenic may increase the risk of sarcoma. However, most sarcomas are not known to be associated with specific environmental hazards.
- Long-Term Swelling. Long-term lymphedema, or swelling, in the arms or legs can increase the risk of sarcoma.
Early signs of soft tissue sarcoma can include a painless lump or swelling. Some sarcomas may not cause any symptoms until they grow and press on neighboring nerves, organs, or muscles. Their growth may cause pain, a feeling of fullness, or difficulty breathing.
The most common symptoms of bone sarcomas include:
- Pain and/or swelling in an arm or leg, the trunk, the pelvis, or the back
- A bone that breaks with no apparent cause
- Limited range of motion in a joint
- Fever of unknown origin
Most sarcomas are treated with a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. Radiofrequency ablation and cryosurgery may also be used. In many cases, reconstructive surgery may be needed to restore bone and tissue strength and structure.
Each person’s treatment plan depends on a variety of factors, such as the type of sarcoma; the tumor location, grade, and size; the patient’s age; and whether the cancer is new or recurrent.
Know Your Body
If you notice a lump or bump or if you are experiencing pain or swelling with no obvious cause, talk to your doctor to see if you need further evaluation. Diagnosing sarcomas in their earliest stage gives more treatment options and a better chance for a cure.
Tae Won Benjamin Kim, MD is the Division Head of the Orthopaedic Oncology Program and the Director of the Rare Cancers Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. He is also an Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery with Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.