What is a sarcoma?A sarcoma is a rare form of cancer that forms in connective tissues such as fat, blood vessels, bones and muscle. Although there are over 50 recognised types of sarcoma, they can be grouped into two main types: soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma. Soft tissue sarcoma occurs in muscle, tendons, blood vessels and other softer tissues, whereas bone sarcomas (or bone cancer) occur throughout the bones of your body. Sarcomas are a very rare type of tumour and account for less than 1% of all adult cancers. This often makes them difficult for patients to learn about, as information is not as widely available as other more common cancers.
Causes and risk factors of sarcoma:Although no one knows what causes sarcoma, there are several things that have been identified as risk factors. A risk factor is something that increases the risk of sarcoma occurring. Common risk factors for sarcoma include:
- Exposure to radiation by accident or via radiation therapy can increase the risk of sarcomas.
- A bone disorder called Paget’s disease can raise the risk of bone sarcomas.
- A family history of sarcoma can increase the risk of sarcomas occurring.
Symptoms of sarcoma:The symptoms of sarcoma can vary depending on whether it is a bone sarcoma or soft tissue sarcoma:
Symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma:
- Unusual lumps on your body – The most common symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma is a lump on your body. These lumps are usually painless and are most commonly found on arms or legs. However, it should also be noted that soft tissue sarcoma can occur in other parts of the body such as the back, neck or abdomen.
- Abdominal pain – A soft tissue sarcoma in your abdomen can lead to severe abdominal pain that becomes worse over time. This often happens due to a tumour pressing on nerves, blood vessels or surrounding organs.
Symptoms of bone sarcoma:
- Bone pain – Bone sarcomas will often cause pain in the bone that they originate from. This pain may be accompanied by swelling ot stiffness of joints.
- Weakened bones – Bone sarcomas can also lead to bones becoming weak, which can increase the risk of a fracture occurring.
- Weight loss and fatigue – Bone cancer can result in a decrease in weight, loss of energy and other symptoms associated with anaemia.
Treatment options for sarcoma:Generally, both bone sarcoma and soft tissue sarcoma are diagnosed with a biopsy. A biopsy is when a doctor takes some tissue from the site of a tumour and tests it to see if it is malignant. If you have been diagnosed with a sarcoma, your doctor will provide you with several different treatment options:
Surgery:In surgery, the surgeon will attempt to remove the tumour, as well as some surrounding skin or bone (called a margin). This is done in an attempt to ensure that cancer doesn’t return. Surgery is available for both soft tissue and bone sarcomas. Following the removal of a soft tissue sarcoma, radiation therapy will also be used to reduce the risk of cancer reoccurring. risks and side effects vary depending on the location of the sarcoma. For this reason, it is important to talk about the potential side effects of surgery with your doctor. In rare cases involving a very large tumour on an arm or leg, or a tumour that continues to reoccur after radiation therapy, surgical removal of the limb (or amputation) will be recommended. This is usually the safest option to prevent the tumour from spreading further. Rehabilitation and physical therapy will often be recommended following the amputation, allowing the patient to learn to live without their limb. In many cases, the fitting of a prosthetic limb will also be an available option.
Radiation therapy:Radiation therapy is when high-energy x-rays or other particles are used to destroy cancer cells. Your doctor will often recommend radiation therapy as a follow up for surgery, before surgery to shrink the tumour or in situations where the sarcoma is inoperable. For sarcomas, the most common form of radiation therapy is called external-beam radiation therapy. The aim of external-beam radiation therapy is to use a machine to focus radiation on the site of the tumour and avoid other tissue. This significantly reduces the severity of side effects. Common side effects for radiation therapy include:
- Skin problems
- Hair loss
Chemotherapy:Chemotherapy is the use of drugs (either orally or intravenously) to target and destroy cancer cells. For sarcomas, chemotherapy is often used if the tumour has spread, making it diffuclt to remove via more efficient methods such as surgery. In some cases, chemotherapy will also be used before surgery to weaken tumours. Common side effects associated with chemotherapy include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hair loss
- Increased risk of infections
- Loss of appetite