Patient Care

Sarcoma – What It Is and How It’s Treated

Sarcomas are a cancerous condition that manifests in different types of tissue, either arising in the extremities and bones (musculoskeletal sarcoma) or soft tissues (soft tissue sarcoma). Symptoms include progressively enlarged or painful lumps that are superficial, deep or in the joints. There are many options for diagnosing sarcomas, and their progress or stage determines treatment options. Sarcoma is a rare type of cancer that often doesn’t cause symptoms, which makes screenings vitally important if you develop any new and unidentified lumps. Screening increases the likelihood of catching sarcomas in its earlier, easier treated stages.

What is sarcoma?

Sarcomas occur when abnormal cells begin to grow out of control in either the bone or soft tissues, often first detected as an unusual lump that is either superficial (near the skin) or deep. The tumors beginning in these tissues or structures can spread to lymph nodes, tissues and other organs as they progress.

Are there different types of sarcoma?

Sarcomas are relatively uncommon tumors, accounting for 1 percent of all malignant (dangerous) tumors. Approximately 15,000 cases of sarcomas occur per year in the United States. Sarcomas are classified according to the cell tissue from which they develop. More than 80 subtypes have been described.

Bone or “musculoskeletal” sarcomas often appear in the long bones of the body or around the knee, shoulder or pelvis. Sarcomas arising in soft tissue include muscle, fat, blood vessels or other supporting tissues anywhere in the body. Half of all soft-tissue sarcomas occur in the limbs, and more are located in the trunk and abdomen. They can also emerge in more visible places, such as the face or fingers. Approximately 20% of sarcomas originate from bone, called osteosarcoma, while 80% arise from soft tissues, called soft tissue sarcoma.

What are symptoms of sarcoma?

Symptoms differ between patients, but those experiencing early stages of sarcoma may experience the following:

In musculoskeletal sarcoma/osteosarcoma:

Of musculoskeletal sarcoma, osteosarcoma is the most common type. For osteosarcomas, symptoms to bring to your doctor’s attention include:

  • Swelling over a bone or bony part of the body.
  • Pain in a bone or joint.
  • A bone that breaks for no known reason.

In soft tissue sarcoma:

Sarcomas happen in soft tissue, including muscle, fat, blood vessels or other supporting tissues anywhere in the body. For soft tissue sarcoma, symptoms include:

  • A visible lump or mass, either painful or painless
  • A deeper lump or mass further beneath the skin, either painful or painless
  • Swelling or bloating
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feelings of fullness or constipation
  • Persistent pain in one area of the body

How is sarcoma treated?

There are multiple factors of sarcoma that require medical attention, and several methods of treatment may be necessary to address all symptoms. Treatment also depends on cancer stage. Treatment methods include:

For musculoskeletal sarcoma:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Chemotherapy

For soft tissue sarcoma:

Treatment methods are similar to those of musculoskeletal sarcoma but focus on the soft tissue region(s) that are affected by tumors.

  • Surgery 
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiofrequency Ablation

Treating Sarcoma at Washington University

Sarcomas may be rare in the general population, but they are not rare at our hospitals. As international recognized leaders in the field, Washington University Physicians at Siteman Cancer Center treat an average of 300 sarcoma and rare cancer patients a year, and medical oncologists run a large clinical trials program. Many of our physicians are principal investigators in these trials, which cover medical oncology, surgery, and radiation therapy. Siteman is currently running 32 clinical trials for more innovative treatments of sarcomas, and our surgeons are dedicated to helping develop new and more effective methods to treat sarcomas.

“I, like almost everyone, have friends and family that have been afflicted with cancer,” says Washington University Chief of Surgical Oncology Ryan Fields, MD. “You see it firsthand and that drives you to really push the envelope.”

As a partner to Washington University, Siteman Cancer Center offers screening, care options and treatments for patients with sarcoma. Surgeons are based in Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital, the Center for Advanced Medicine – South County and Siteman Cancer Center and Christian Hospital. To request an appointment with a Washington University surgical oncologist a Siteman Cancer Center, please call (314) 747-7222 or fill out an online appointment form.