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Sarcoma: Types, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Risk Factors And Treatment

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Every year in the month of july, Sarcoma Awareness Month is celebrated around the world to raise public awareness about sarcoma and to support the people who are diagnosed with it.

Sarcoma is a rare yet deadly form of cancer that lacks awareness among many people. Just like each cancer is represented by a ribbon, sarcoma is represented by a in yellow ribbon which symbolizes the fight against Sarcoma and helps the public to recognize and understand about this uncommon cancer.

What is Sarcoma?

Sarcoma is a rare form of cancer that develops in the connective tissues of the body. The connective tissues include muscles, tendons, blood vessels, bones, cartilage, nerves and fat which connect and support the other tissues or organs of the body. The word “Sarcoma” is derived from a Greek word which means fleshy growth.

Though sarcoma is uncommon, And mostly affects young people it can occur in children, teens and adults irrespective of the age. In general, the term “Sarcoma” represents a complex family of cancers which cover a wide variety of the diseases that arise from bones and soft tissues.

Types of Sarcoma:

Sarcoma is categorized into two, based on where the cancer has developed in the body:

  1. Soft tissue sarcoma
  2. Bone sarcoma

Soft Tissue Sarcoma:

soft tissue sarcoma

As the name suggests, soft tissue sarcoma originates in the soft tissues of the body such as muscles, tendons, cartilage, fat, nerves and blood vessels. Soft tissue sarcomas are usually found in the arms, chest, abdomen or legs. They occur commonly in children and adults.

Symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma:

The most common symptom of soft tissue sarcoma is swelling and sometimes tenderness. If the tumor has developed near a joint can result in the difficulty with the normal movement of the joint. The other symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Anemia
  • A painless lump that becomes sore or painful eventually, which need to be examined by the doctor

As the name suggests, soft tissue sarcoma originates in the soft tissues of the body such as muscles, tendons, cartilage, fat, nerves and blood vessels. Soft tissue sarcomas are usually found in the arms, chest, abdomen or legs. They occur commonly in children and adults.

Types of soft tissue sarcoma:

There are many types of soft tissue sarcomas based on the location or which soft tissue of the body is affected. Here is a list of common soft tissue sarcomas along with the affected part of the body respectively.

Soft Tissue Sarcoma Type Affected Soft Tissue
Angiosarcoma The lining of blood vessels or lymph vessel
Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor (GIST) Neuromuscular cells of intestines
Liposarcoma Fat tissues in thigh, back of the abdomen or behind the knee
Leiomyosarcoma Smooth muscles that line the walls of organs
Synovial Sarcoma Synovial membrane, which is the connective tissue that lines that joint cavity and produces synovial fluid that lubricates and nourishes the joints.
Neurofibrosarcoma Protective lining of the nerves
Rhabdomyosarcoma Skeletal muscle
Fibrosarcoma Fibroblasts, cells responsible for creating the connective tissues throughout the body
Myxofibrosarcoma Connective tissues
Vascular Sarcoma Blood vessels
Kaposi Sarcoma Lining of the blood vessels and lymphatic vessels and soft tissues in multiple locations of the body

Bone Sarcoma:

bone sarcoma

Bone sarcoma is considered as the primary bone cancer. Similar to soft tissue sarcomas, bone sarcomas are also named according to the location of the body where the tumor has originated. Bone sarcomas are different from the metastasis, which usually spread from cancer in another part of the body.

Symptoms of bone sarcoma:

The common symptoms of bone sarcoma include:

  • Pain in the site of a tumor
  • Swelling around the bone
  • Weakened bone, that may lead to fracture
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Anemia
  • Tumors that develop in or around the joints that can cause swelling and tenderness and limit the range of movement.
Types of bone sarcoma:

The biggest challenge with bone sarcomas is that they effect young people and children. The most common types of bone sarcomas are mentioned below:

  • Osteosarcoma: It is the most common type of bone sarcoma that develops in osteoblasts, cells that are responsible for bone formation
  • Chondrosarcoma: In this type, the cancer origins in the cartilage and later spreads to the bone. Chondrosarcoma is most common in the middle-aged group and usually develops in the shoulders, pelvis, and upper leg.
  • Chordoma: Chordoma is a rare type of bone cancer that can develop anywhere in the spine, right from the base of the skull to the tailbone. As the chordoma grows, it extends into the bone and affects the soft tissue around them.
  • Ewing’s sarcoma: Ewing’s sarcoma is the form of cancer that starts either in bones or the soft tissues around the bones such as cartilage or the nerves. The most common sites of this type of sarcoma are ribs, upper arm, pelvis and legs.

Diagnosis of Sarcoma:

If anyone experiences or is suspected to have symptoms of sarcoma, they might be prescribed with some tests or procedures in order to diagnose sarcoma and to determine the extent of the disease. The diagnostic tests or procedures of sarcoma may include:

  • A Physical Examination: The person might get a physical exam by the doctor to find the unusual changes that may indicate the symptoms of sarcoma such as a tumor, lump, or swelling.
  • Imaging tests: Imaging tests are prescribed according to the suspected type of sarcoma. If the patient shows symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma, he/she might be suggested to get an MRI, Ultrasound or a PET scan. In case of bone sarcoma, the doctor prescribes to get an X-ray, CT or bone scans which help to detect bone and joint problems.
  • Biopsy: In case of a tumor or lump found during the physical exam or imaging tests, a biopsy is done. This involves collecting a sample from the suspected tissue for further diagnosis. Biopsy results determine whether the tumor or lump is cancerous or not. This helps in choosing the best treatment options available.

Risk factors of Sarcoma:

Though the causes of sarcoma are unclear, there are some factors that can raise one’s risk of developing sarcoma. Here is the list of most common risk factors:

  • History of Radiation therapy: One can have a higher risk of developing sarcoma if they have previously received radiation therapy for cancer treatment.
  • Genetic Disorders: People with a family history of cancer will have an increased risk of developing sarcoma as there are higher chances of inheriting the syndromes from previous generations when compared to others.
  • Chronic Swelling: Experiencing long-term swelling or lymphedema, a condition in which swelling is caused due to the blocked or damaged lymphatic system can raise the risk of angiosarcoma.
  • Chemical Exposure: Experiencing long-term swelling or lymphedema, a condition in which swelling is caused due to the blocked or damaged lymphatic system can raise the risk of angiosarcoma.

Treatments for Sarcoma:

Though the causes of sarcoma are unclear, there are some factors that can raise one’s risk of developing sarcoma. Here is the list of most common risk factors:

  • The type of sarcoma
  • The location, size of the tumor
  • How aggressive is the growth of sarcoma
  • The extent of the disease; whether it has spread to other parts of the body or not
  • Whether it is a newly developed sarcoma or recurred after treating previous cancer

The various treatment options available for sarcoma include:

  • Surgery: Surgery is preferred for tumor removal or to remove all the cancer cells. In some cases, the process of removing the cancer cells may include amputation of an arm or leg to remove all the cancer. However, in limb salvage surgery (LSS), limb functionality is preserved according to the possibility during the surgery.
  • Immunotherapy: A therapy that uses drugs in order to boost a person’s immune system so that it can fight back cancer.
  • Chemotherapy: Similar to immunotherapy, chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to destroy rapidly growing cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy: In radiation therapy, high-powered energy beams are used to kill the cancer cells. This therapy is often carried out to shrink the tumor before removing it by surgery or to kill the leftover cancer cells after surgery is done. In some cases, radiation therapy is considered the main treatment option when surgery is not considerable.
  • Surgery: Surgery is preferred for tumor removal or to remove all the cancer cells. In some cases, the process of removing the cancer cells may include amputation of an arm or leg to remove all the cancer. However, the limb functionality is preserved according to the possibility during the surgery.
  • Targeted therapies: A therapy that uses drugs in order to boost a person’s immune system so that it can fight back cancer.

Survival from Sarcoma:

Chances of survival are great with early diagnosis and timely treatment as is preservation of the organ, joint and it’s function.

The survival rates of sarcoma depend on the grade of the tumor at the time of diagnosis. There are higher chances of survival if the growth of cancer is limited to the area where it has originated without spreading to other parts of the body. This kind of low-grade soft tissue sarcomas can be cured by performing the surgery to remove the tumor. While aggressive sarcomas in which the growth of cancer cells has spread to much extent are harder to treat and have fewer survival rates. Though, in the later stages of cancer when it cannot be cured, the spread can still be controlled for a period of time in order to preserve the functionality of the vital organs.