Sarcoma is a tumor that is cancerous. Recognizing the symptoms and early detection of the disease are crucial to surviving it.

A sarcoma is rare type of cancer that is different from the more common cancerous tumor known as a carcinoma. Sarcomas can be found in connective tissue, which are cells that connect other kind of tissues in the body.

They often are found in the bones, muscles, tendons, cartilage, nerves, fat, and blood vessels of arms and legs. But they can be found anywhere in the body.

“Sarcomas are different animals and they defy all the fundamentals you have learned about cancer,” said James Hu, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC and medical director of the USC Sarcoma Program.

Call for an Appointment
(800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273)

Although there are more than 50 types of sarcoma, they can be grouped into two main kinds: soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma, or osteosarcoma. According to the American Cancer Society, about 12,390 new soft tissue sarcomas and 3,260 new bone sarcomas will be diagnosed in 2017.

Risk factors

While the causes of sarcoma are unknown, scientists believe that the following factors increase the risk of developing the disease:

  • Family history of sarcoma
  • Having a bone disorder called Paget’s disease
  • Having a genetic disorder such as neurofibromatosis, Gardner syndrome, retinoblastoma or Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Having been exposed to radiation (perhaps during treatment for an earlier cancer)

Symptoms

Soft tissue sarcomas often are difficult to detect because they can grow anywhere in the body.

The first sign of the disease often is a painless lump. When the lump grows in size, it can press against nerves or muscles and create discomfort.

It can also make it hard for the patient to breathe. There are no tests that can find these tumors before they cause noticeable symptoms.

Osteosarcoma can show early symptoms such as:

  • A lingering pain in the affected bone, which can get worse at night
  • Swelling of the affected area, often weeks after the pain is felt
  • A noticeable limp, if the sarcoma is located in the leg

Osteosarcoma happens more frequently in children and young adults. Sometimes osteosarcoma can be mistaken for growing pains or a sports injury. Parents should consult with a doctor if their child’s pain gets worse at night and is only felt in one arm or leg rather than both.

Treatments

The treatments for sarcoma vary depending on the type, the location in the body, how developed it is and whether or not it has spread to other parts of the body (metastasized).

In most cases of osteosarcoma, the cancer cells can be removed by surgery, without removing a leg or an arm. Radiation also can shrink the tumor before surgery or kill the cancer cells that remain after a surgery.

If surgery isn’t an option, radiation will be the main treatment. When the cancer has spread, chemotherapy is recommended.

Chemo drugs can be used with or in place of surgery. Newer treatments include targeted therapies that use drugs or manmade versions of antibodies from the immune system to stop the growth of the cancer cells without harming normal cells.

Surgery often can cure soft tissue sarcoma if the tumor is low-grade, which means that it’s not likely to spread to other parts of the body. More aggressive sarcomas are harder to fight successfully. (According to the National Cancer Institute, recent survival rates were 83 percent for localized sarcomas, 54 percent for regional stage sarcomas and 16 percent for sarcomas with distant spread.)

The survival rate for osteosarcoma is between 60 percent and 80 percent if the cancer has not spread. Osteosarcoma has a better chance of being cured if all of the cancer can be removed by surgery.

Treatments for cancer are more effective the earlier the cancer is caught. That’s why you should get appropriate screening tests for your age, gender and family history.

The Sarcoma Program at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center offers patients access to a multidisciplinary team of specialists trained in sarcoma cancers. If you’re in the Southern California area and are in search of a cancer specialist, call  (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.cancer.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.

By Ramin Zahed