Soft tissue sarcoma affects the tissues that connect, support and surround other body structures and organs and are a rare type of cancer. Soft tissue sarcoma can develop in any part of the body affecting muscle, deep skin tissues, ligaments, tendons
Any type of tissue can change by soft tissue sarcomas including fat, muscle, blood vessels, deep skin tissues, tendons and ligaments.
With no early stage symptoms, soft tissue sarcomas become symptomatic as they spread and get bigger. For example: -
- Tissue cancer under the skin - soft, painless lump that gets bigger over time and can't move around easily.
- Abdominal pain, constipation and a feeling of fullness may be cancer near the stomach.
- Coughing and breathlessness may be cancer near the lungs.
- You should always see your GP if any of these or similar symptoms present themselves.
Having been referred by your GP, a diagnosis of a soft tissue sarcoma is made by a hospital specialist, based on symptoms, a physical examination, and: -
- Ultrasound - usually the first test performed relatively quick and straightforward
- MRI scan - may be performed later
- Biopsy – a sample of suspected cancerous tissue removed and tested
If a soft tissue sarcoma is confirmed, these and further tests will determine how likely the cancer is to spread and whether or how far cancer has spread - known as the "grade" and "stage" respectively.
The tumours we see in cancer are the result of cells uncontrollably multiplying. The exact cause of the majority of soft tissue sarcomas is unclear. However, we do know some things that increase the risk: -
- Age – while soft tissue sarcomas can occur at any age; they are more common in middle-aged or older adults.
- Genetic conditions – certain genetic conditions, such as retinoblastoma and type 1 neurofibromatosis associated with an increased risk of soft tissue sarcoma.
- Radiotherapy – many years after radiotherapy for another type of cancer, you can go on to develop a soft tissue sarcoma.
- Specific chemical exposure – including vinyl chloride, dioxins and phenoxyacetic herbicides, has been associated with increased rates of soft tissue sarcomas.
- Kaposi's sarcoma - a very rare sarcoma caused by a virus known as the human herpesvirus type 8 (HHV-8).
Treatment depends on things where cancer developed, the type of sarcoma it is, how far it has spread, your age and your general health.
The main treatments are:
- Radiotherapy – where high-energy radiation is used to kill cancer cells
- Surgery to remove any tumour
- Chemotherapy and other medications to kill cancer cells
Surgery is the primary treatment for soft tissue sarcomas diagnosed at an early stage. It involves removing the tumour along with a section of surrounding healthy tissue to ensure no cancer cells are left.
In a tiny number of cases, there may be no option but to amputate.
Radiotherapy may be used before or after surgery to improve the chance of cure. Radiotherapy is carried out using a machine that directs beams of radiation at a small treatment area.
Chemotherapy is very occasionally used to shrink a tumour before surgery and make it easier to remove. Anti-cancer medication is given directly into a vein (intravenously).
If soft tissue sarcomas cannot be removed surgically, Chemotherapy may also be used alone or alongside radiotherapy.