July 20, 2022
5 min. read

What Is Soft Tissue Sarcoma? Types, Causes, and Treatment

Medly

Good to Know:

  • Soft tissue sarcoma is a rare type of cancer that develops in different tissues of the body. These include tendons, muscles, fat, nerves, and blood vessels.
  • There are more than 50 different subtypes of soft tissue sarcoma. The subtype depends on the age of the person and where the cancer develops in their body.
  • We are still learning what causes soft tissue sarcoma, but we know that it is more likely to develop in patients who have some inherited genetic disorder, patients who have been exposed to chemicals, and patients who have undergone radiation treatment for other types of cancer.
  • Treatment for soft tissue sarcoma includes surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and targeted drug therapy. 

What is soft tissue sarcoma?

Soft tissue sarcoma is a rare type of cancer that forms in different tissues of the body. Soft tissues include muscles, fat, nerves, blood vessels, fibrous tissues, and deep layers of the skin. Soft tissue sarcoma can develop on all parts of the body, but the most common places are the arms, legs, and stomach. 

Quick Statistics: Soft tissue sarcomas are very rare cancers; about four people per 100,000 are diagnosed each year. 

Types of soft tissue sarcoma

There are more than 50 subtypes of soft tissue sarcoma. They are categorized based on where they are in the body and who is more likely to get them. Some types of soft tissue sarcoma are more common in adults; others are more common in children. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the most common types of soft tissue sarcoma include:

  • Leiomyosarcoma: this type starts in smooth muscle tissue. It’s most common within the stomach and uterus, but it can be found anywhere.
  • Liposarcoma: this type of soft tissue sarcoma develops within fat. It can be found in many parts of the body, but it’s most commonly found in the stomach.
  • Pleomorphic sarcoma: also called undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma, this is a type of malignant (cancerous) tumor that usually starts in the arms, legs, or torso. It’s an aggressive form of soft tissue sarcoma that can quickly spread to other parts of the body.

Additional types of soft tissue sarcomas include angiosarcoma, which develops in the lining of the blood vessels; gastrointestinal stromal tumors (GIST), which develop in the digestive system; osteosarcomas, which start in the bones; and Kaposi’s sarcoma, which develops in the lining of blood vessels and lymph vessels.

Fast Facts: There are other types of sarcomas, such as osteosarcomas that start in the bones, and the Ewing Family of Tumors and rhabdomyosarcoma, which are often seen in children. 

What are some risk factors of soft tissue sarcoma?

We are still learning what causes soft tissue sarcoma. Lifestyle factors—such as smoking, diet, and exercise—are not risk factors for developing this type of cancer. We do know that men are more likely to develop soft tissue sarcoma than women and that Black people have the highest rates of soft tissue sarcoma compared to people of other races.

Some of the things researchers believe can increase the risk of soft tissue sarcoma include:

  • Genetic disorders. Some rare hereditary conditions may be passed down from parents, making their children more likely to develop soft tissue sarcoma. These include Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, and Gardner syndrome.
  • Exposure to certain chemicals. Working with chemicals at high levels, such as dioxin or phenoxyacetic acid in herbicides, may increase the risk of soft tissue sarcoma, but the links are still unclear.
  • Radiation exposure. Specifically, radiation treatments for other cancers can increase the risk of soft tissue sarcoma.

What are some signs and symptoms of soft tissue sarcomas?

The signs and symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma depend on the stages of the disease. In early stages, soft tissue sarcoma may not cause any symptoms. As it progresses, there may be swelling or a painless lump somewhere on the body. Pain can still be a symptom, however, if the tumor is pressing against nerves or muscles. If the sarcoma is located in the digestive system, there may be nausea, pain, or constipation. 

Soft tissue sarcoma can present with symptoms that are similar to other conditions. If you’re concerned about any new symptoms, discuss them with your healthcare provider. Even if you do not have soft tissue sarcoma, your symptoms may be a sign of a different health issue—even if it’s not as serious.

Quick Statistics: The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, roughly 13,000 people will be diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma. For comparison’s sake, basal cell skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the U.S., is diagnosed roughly 4 million times each year.

How is soft tissue sarcoma diagnosed?

Soft tissue sarcoma is first diagnosed with imaging tests, such as x-rays, CT scans, or PET scans. If the doctors suspect soft tissue sarcoma, they will perform a biopsy to confirm the type of soft tissue sarcoma you may have.

The stages of soft tissue sarcoma

Soft tissue sarcoma stages range from 1 to 4. Stages are based on:

  • The tumor’s size
  • How much the cancer cells resemble normal cells
  • Whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other organs

What is the best treatment for soft tissue sarcoma?

Treatment options for soft tissue sarcoma include:

  • Chemotherapy, which uses oral or intravenous medications to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used at the same time as other treatments.
  • Radiation therapy, which uses x-rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. This is usually done in conjunction with other forms of treatment. It may be given before or after surgery, or at the same time as chemotherapy (called chemoradiation).
  • Targeted drug therapy can be effective against some types of soft tissue sarcomas, especially gastrointestinal stromal tumors. Targeted drug therapy uses medications to identify and attack specific cancer cells within soft tissue sarcomas.
  • Surgery, which is the most commonly used soft tissue sarcoma treatment.

Fast Facts: Clinical trials are also available for soft tissue sarcoma, and they are an opportunity to further cancer research. If you’re interested in participating in a clinical trial, discuss your options with your oncologist. You can also learn more about clinical trials from resources such as the American Cancer Society.

Soft tissue sarcoma can be treated successfully. The disease has an approximate 65% 5-year survival rate—meaning 5 years after being diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma, 65% of patients are still alive. The survival rate jumps to 81% if soft tissue sarcoma is treated before it spreads.

It also bears repeating that soft tissue sarcoma is very rare, and its common symptoms may also be a sign of a different health concern. If you’re worried about any symptoms you’re experiencing, talk with your healthcare provider. They can address your concerns and, if necessary, rule out other health issues before checking for soft tissue sarcoma.

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