Soft Tissue Sarcomas

Soft Tissue Sarcoma is a rare form of cancer. It comprises approximately one percent of all cancers diagnosed. According to the National Cancer Institute, there are approximately 11,280 new cases of soft tissue sarcoma in the United States each year and approximately 3,900 people die of the disease each year. Slightly more men than women develop soft tissue sarcoma and the race distribution mirrors that of the U.S. population. Due to its rarity, it is crucial for patients to seek a cancer specialist in the treatment of their disease.

Soft tissue sarcoma can occur in the muscles, fat, blood vessels, tendons, fibrous tissues and synovial tissues (tissues around joints). About 40 percent occur in the legs usually at or above the knee. Fifteen percent develop in the hands and arms, another 15 percent in the head and neck and 30 percent in the shoulders, chest, abdomen, or hips. Soft tissue sarcomas can invade surrounding tissue and can metastasize (spread) to other organs of the body forming a secondary tumor. Secondary tumors are referred to as metastatic soft tissue sarcoma because they are part of the original cancer and are not a new disease. Some tumors of the soft tissue are benign (non-cancerous) and are rarely life threatening.

It is not clear why some people develop soft tissue (or any) sarcoma; however, researchers have been able to identify some common characteristics in groups with high rates of soft tissue sarcoma. Some studies have shown that people exposed to phenoxyacetic acid in herbicides and clorphenols in wood preservative have increased risk of soft tissue sarcoma. Researchers also know that people exposed to high doses of radiation are at a greater risk for developing soft tissue sarcoma. Researchers are also studying genetic abnormalities and chromosome mutations as possible causes for soft tissue sarcoma. People with certain inherited diseases such as neurofibromatosis or familial syndromes associated with p53 mutations have been shown to have higher risks of soft tissue sarcoma.

Early on, soft tissue sarcoma rarely causes any symptoms. Because soft tissue is very elastic, the tumors can grow quite large before they are felt. The first symptom is usually a painless lump. As the tumor grows and begins to press against nearby nerves and muscles, pain or soreness can occur.

Soft tissue sarcomas can only be diagnosed by a surgical biopsy. A biopsy is a procedure which removes tissue from the tumor so that it can be analyzed under a microscope. Soft tissue sarcomas are treated using surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Depending on the size, location, extent, and grade (growth rate) of the tumor, a combination of all or some of these treatments may be used. Biological therapy, such as treatment to stimulate the body’s immune system to fight cancer, or molecules that target certain genes expressed by the cancer cells, also is being used for some sarcomas such as GIST, and in clinical trials for many other types of sarcoma.

See also our list of specific sub-types of soft tissue sarcomas.