Soft tissue sarcoma is cancer that forms in the soft tissue of the body. Soft tissue connects, supports, or surrounds other body parts. In adults, soft tissue sarcoma is rare.
There are many different types of soft tissue cancer. The type of sarcoma depends on the tissue it forms in:
- Blood vessels
- Lymph vessels
- Tissues in and around joints
The cancer can form almost anywhere, but is most common in the:
It is not known what causes most sarcomas. But there are certain risk factors:
- Some inherited diseases, such as Li-Fraumeni Syndrome
- Radiation therapy for other cancers
- Exposure to certain chemicals, such as vinyl chloride or certain herbicides
- Having swelling in the arms or legs for a long time (lymphedema)
In early stages, there are often no symptoms. As the cancer grows, it may cause a lump or swelling that keeps growing over time. Most lumps are NOT cancer.
Other symptoms include:
- Pain, if it presses on a nerve, organ, blood vessel, or muscle
- Blockage or bleeding in the stomach or intestines
- Breathing problems
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider will ask you about your medical history and do a physical exam. Other tests may include:
If your provider suspects cancer, you might have a biopsy to check for cancer. In a biopsy, your provider collects a tissue sample to examine in the lab.
The biopsy will show if cancer is present and help show how quickly it is growing. Your provider may ask for more tests to stage the cancer. Staging can tell how much cancer is present and whether it has spread.
All types of soft tissue sarcoma are treated the same way.
Surgery is the most common treatment.
- In early stages, the tumor and some healthy tissue around it is removed.
- Sometimes, just a small amount of tissue needs to removed. Other times, a wider area of tissue must be removed.
- With advanced cancers that form in an arm or leg, surgery may be followed by radiation or chemotherapy. Rarely, the limb may need to be amputated.
- Used before surgery to help shrink the tumor to make it easier to remove the cancer
- Used after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells
Chemotherapy may be used to help kill cancer that has metastasized. This means it has spread to different areas of the body.
Two newer therapies being evaluated are:
- Infusing the chemotherapy only in the limb (arm or leg) where the cancer is found.
- Regional hyperthermia
Cancer affects how you feel about yourself and your life. You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have had the same experiences and problems can help you feel less alone.
Ask your provider to help you find a support group for people who have been diagnosed with soft tissue cancer.
The outlook for people whose cancer is treated early is very good.
- More than 8 out of every 10 people treated for cancer that hasn't spread are still cancer-free after 5 years.
- More than half of the people treated for cancer that has spread locally are cancer-free at 5 years.
- About 16% of people treated for cancer that has spread to distant body parts are cancer-free at 5 years.
- Most people who survive 5 years can expect to be cancer-free at 10 years.
Complications include side effects from surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
See your provider about any lump that grows in size or is painful.
No one knows the cause of most soft tissue sarcomas, and there is no way to prevent it. Knowing your risk factors and telling your health care provider about any symptoms when you first notice them can increase your chance of surviving this type of cancer.
Leiomyosarcoma; Hemangiosarcoma; Kaposi's sarcoma; Lymphangiosarcoma; Synovial sarcoma; Neurofibrosarcoma; Liposarcoma; Fibrosarcoma; Malignant fibrous histiocytoma; Dermatofibrosarcoma; Angiosarcoma
Nakamura T, Grimer RJ, Carter SR, Tillman RM, Abudu A, et al. Outcome of soft-tissue sarcoma patients who were alive and event-free more than five years after initial treatment. Bone Joint J. 2013 Aug;95-B(8):1139-43. PMID: 23908433 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23908433.
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Adult Soft Tissue Sarcoma Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified 4/02/2015. Available at: cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/adult-soft-tissue-sarcoma/Patient. Accessed: 7/7/2015.
Singer S. Soft tissue sarcomas. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery .19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 33.
Toulmonde M, Le Cesne A, Mendiboure J, Blay JY, Piperno-Neumann S, et al. Long-term recurrence of soft tissue sarcomas: Prognostic factors and implications for prolonged follow-up. Cancer. 2014 Oct 1;120(19):3003-6. PMID: 24942887 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24942887.
Review Date 10/7/2014
Updated by: Christine Zhang, MD, Medical Oncologist, Fresno, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.