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Soft Tissue Sarcoma

Soft Tissue Sarcoma Symptoms and Causes

Soft-tissue sarcoma is a cancer that begins in the muscle, fat, fibrous tissue, blood vessels or other supporting tissue of the body.

The North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute takes a multidisciplinary approach to treat patients with soft-tissue sarcoma. The treatment team consists of medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, oncology nurses and social workers who work together to provide the highest quality of care and expertise in the diagnosis, treatment and support to people with this disease.

Soft-Tissue Sarcoma: An Overview

What Is Soft-Tissue Sarcoma?

Soft tissues are what hold the body together. They include muscles, tendons, blood vessels, fat, nerves and deep skin tissues. Soft tissues do not include bones or other organs. Although body parts such as lungs, breasts and colons are soft, they have specific functions. Because they perform very specific "jobs," they are not considered soft tissue.

Sarcoma is cancer. Soft-tissue sarcoma is cancer in one of the soft tissues. There are many different kinds of soft-tissue sarcoma. In general, soft-tissue sarcomas are rare. About 43 percent of soft-tissue tumors start in the arms or legs. Most of the others are found in the torso, or trunk area. Less often, they are found in the head and neck or inside other organs, including the liver, lung, kidney, uterus, breast, gastrointestinal tract or the abdominal cavity.

What Are the Types of Soft-Tissue Sarcoma?

When lumps grow in the body’s soft tissue and have cancer cells in them, they are called soft-tissue sarcoma. These are the most common kinds of soft-tissue sarcoma:

  • Spindle cell sarcomas
  • Liposarcomas.
  • Synovial sarcomas
  • Leiomyosarcomas
  • Malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor, also called neurofibrosarcoma or malignant schwannoma
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumors, also called GIST
  • Ewing’s sarcoma, also called PNET or peripheral neuroectodermal tumors

What Are the Symptoms of Soft-Tissue Sarcoma?

People with early-stage soft-tissue sarcoma usually do not notice any symptoms. In fact, symptoms of soft-tissue sarcoma may not appear until the cancer has grown for some time. The following are common symptoms of soft-tissue sarcoma:

  • A lump on the body which is usually painless
  • Stomach pain and vomiting
  • A full feeling after not eating very much
  • Blood in the stool (a red or tar-like black stool)
  • Lack of appetite or weight loss

These symptoms may be the result of soft-tissue sarcoma. They may also be symptoms of less serious illnesses. If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away.

How Is Soft-Tissue Sarcoma Diagnosed?

If you are having symptoms, your doctor will ask you about:

  • Your health history
  • Your family's history of cancer

Diagnostic Tests:

  • Physical exam — performed by your doctor
  • Biopsy — Although a physical exam may suggest that a tumor is a sarcoma, a biopsy is the only way to be certain that it is a sarcoma and not another type of cancer or a benign disease.
  • Imaging tests — You may have one or more of these imaging tests to help find out if you have soft-tissue sarcoma:
    • X-rays — X-rays of your chest can help your doctor see if the sarcoma has spread to your lungs.
    • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan — This test takes many X-rays from many angles. It can be used to find the sarcoma, and it can also help in determining how far it has spread.
    • Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) — MRIs can show more detail than X-rays and can help a doctor figure out the location, size, and stage of the cancer.

How Is Soft-Tissue Sarcoma Treated?

Treatment for soft-tissue sarcomas may be either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy or control the cancer cells in one certain area. Surgery and radiation therapy are local treatments. Systemic treatments are used to destroy or control cancer cells throughout the whole body. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment. You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments.

  • Surgery — The goal of surgery is to remove the whole tumor or as much of it as possible. At the same time, the goal is to preserve as much as possible of the affected body part in order to maintain normal function. The size of the tumor generally determines whether surgery alone will be used for treatment. Tumors larger than a certain size will most likely also be treated with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy, either before or after surgery.
  • Radiation therapy — The goal of this treatment is to kill cancer cells using powerful energy from radiation beams. This treatment may be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or to kill cancer cells that may remain after surgery. Radiation therapy may be used before, during and/or after surgery.
  • Chemotherapy — The goal of this treatment is to use drugs to shrink and destroy sarcoma cells. Usually, doctors inject chemotherapy drugs into the body through a vein. The blood then carries the drugs throughout the body, killing cancer cells. Less often, doctors inject drugs right into the blood vessels around the tumor. That method is not yet a standard therapy. Chemotherapy may be given before or after surgery. In the case of metastatic disease (cancer has spread into other parts of the body), chemotherapy may be used alone for treatment.

Doctors are always working on new ways to treat soft-tissue sarcoma. They test these methods in clinical trials. Before beginning treatment, ask your doctor whether you should join any clinical trials.

Soft-Tissue Sarcoma Clinical Trials

The North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute offers a full array of clinical trials. The result of this research not only impacts survival, but also enhances the quality of life. For more information about clinical trials for Soft-Tissue Sarcoma, visit Cancer Clinical Trials.

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