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Sarcoma

Updated 10.06.2022
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Sarcoma is a rare cancer affecting any part of the body. The most common type are soft tissue sarcomas which develop in muscle, nerves, fatty tissue and blood vessels. The other types are bone sarcoma and gastrointestinal stromal tumours. Around 3,000 people a year in the UK are diagnosed with sarcoma, making it a rare cancer, and it affects men and women equally.

What symptoms should I look out for?

Sarcomas can cause a lump on the skin, which may or may not be painful, bone pain or an unexpected fracture with minimal injury. Symptoms can develop close to the site where the sarcoma is growing- for example abdominal pain near the abdomen, breathing problems and coughing near the lungs. Generalised symptoms like fatigue and unintentional weight loss can also occur.

What causes a sarcoma?

Like most cancers, sarcoma forms when there are mutations in the DNA of cells, causing abnormal cells to grow and divide uncontrollably. The reason this happens is unknown but there are certain things that increase your risk, such as genetic conditions, previous exposure to radiation from radiotherapy as well as exposure to chemicals such as industrial chemicals. Angiosarcoma occurs often in places where the lymphatic system has been blocked. Kaposi’s sarcoma originates from blood vessel walls and forms purple painless spots on the legs, feet or face. It has different causes, depending on the subtypes, including certain ethnicities, immune suppression including those with AIDS, and it’s more common in people with human herpes virus 8 (HHV-8), a sexually transmitted infection.

What can the doctor do?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and other health conditions and examine you. They may arrange further investigations, such as a scan, or they may refer you urgently to a specialist. Sarcomas are often difficult to spot - the presentation is not always clear-cut and can sometimes take some time to arrive at. The most appropriate imaging depends on the location and type of any suspected sarcoma. If there is a bone fracture, an X-ray is the usual place to start. Soft tissue lumps may require ultrasound scans, and later an MRI, for a more detailed view. At some point, a suspicious mass will require a sample (biopsy) to be taken for lab analysis of the cell type and confirm whether it is cancerous.

What is the treatment?

Treatment depends on the location, the type and how aggressive the sarcoma is, and also if it’s spread to other areas. Surgery is the mainstay of treatment to remove the bulk of the cancer cells, if not all. Then accompanying treatments like radiotherapy or chemotherapy can be used before or after to stop the cells from growing and dividing. Almost 55% of people survive their cancer for 5 years or more, and 45% for ten years-plus. Sarcoma UK website provides great resources for people suffering from and caring for those with sarcoma.

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