Soft tissue sarcomas

Soft tissue sarcomas are a group of rare cancers. These affect the tissues that connect, support and surround other body structures and organs. See your GP if you have a worrying lump. Although it's much more likely you have a non-cancerous condition, it's important to get your symptoms checked out.

About soft tissue sarcomas

Tissues that can be affected by soft tissue sarcomas include fat, muscle, blood vessels, deep skin tissues, tendons and ligaments. Bone sarcomas are covered separately.

Soft tissue sarcomas can develop in almost any part of the body, including the legs, arms and trunk (torso).

Symptoms of soft tissue sarcomas

Soft tissue sarcomas often have no obvious symptoms in the early stages.

They can cause symptoms as they get bigger or spread. The symptoms depend on where the cancer develops.

For example:

  • cancer in the tissue under the skin may cause a soft, painless lump that can't easily be moved around and gets bigger over time
  • cancer near the stomach may cause tummy (abdominal) pain, a persistent feeling of fullness and constipation
  • cancer near the lungs may cause a cough or breathlessness

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if you have a worrying lump. This is particularly if you have one that's getting bigger over time or is the size of a golf ball or larger – or any other troublesome symptoms.

Although it's much more likely you have a non-cancerous condition, such as a cyst (fluid under the skin) or lipoma (fatty lump), it's important to get your symptoms checked out.

If your GP is concerned there's a possibility you have cancer, they'll refer you for a number of hospital tests.

A diagnosis of a soft tissue sarcoma will usually be made by a hospital specialist. It will be based on your symptoms, a physical examination, and the results of tests.

Causes of soft tissue sarcomas

Cancer occurs when cells multiply uncontrollably, forming growths called tumours.

In the vast majority of soft tissue sarcomas it's unclear what causes this to happen. But there are a number of things known to increase the risk, including:

  • age – soft tissue sarcomas can occur at any age, including in children, but are more common in middle-aged or elderly people and your risk increases as you get older
  • certain genetic conditions – some genetic conditions, such as neurofibromatosis type 1 and retinoblastoma, are associated with an increased risk of soft tissue sarcomas
  • previous radiotherapy – some people who have previously had radiotherapy for another type of cancer go on to develop a soft tissue sarcoma, often many years later
  • exposure to certain chemicals – exposure to some chemicals, including vinyl chloride, dioxins and phenoxyacetic herbicides, has been associated with increased rates of soft tissue sarcomas

Kaposi's sarcoma is a very rare sarcoma caused by a virus known as the human herpesvirus type 8 (HHV-8) infecting someone with a weakened immune system (such as people with HIV).

Treatment for soft tissue sarcomas

If you are diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma, the health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment options with you.

The best treatment will depend on things such as where the cancer developed, the type of sarcoma it is, how far it has spread, your age and your general health.

The main treatments are:

  • surgery to remove any tumour
  • radiotherapy – where high-energy radiation is used to kill cancer cells
  • chemotherapy and other medications to kill cancer cells

Types of soft tissue sarcoma

There are many different types of soft tissue sarcoma, depending on where in the body it develops.

Examples include:

  • leiomyosarcoma – develops in muscle tissue
  • liposarcoma – develops in fat tissue
  • angiosarcoma – develops in the cells of the blood or lymph glands
  • gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GISTs) – develop in the connective tissues that support the organs of the digestive system

Outlook for soft tissue sarcomas

The outlook for a soft tissue sarcoma mostly depends on:

  • the type of sarcoma it is
  • how likely it is to spread (the grade)
  • how far it has already spread (the stage) by the time it's diagnosed

If it's detected at an early stage or is a low grade tumour and it can be removed during surgery, a cure is usually possible. Larger, higher grade tumours have a greater risk of coming back or spreading.

After initial treatment, you'll need regular check-ups to look for any signs the cancer has come back.

You may also need physiotherapy and occupational therapy to help you manage any physical difficulty resulting from surgery.

A cure isn't usually possible if a soft tissue sarcoma is only detected when it has already spread to other parts of the body. Although treatment can help slow the spread of the cancer and control your symptoms.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was published May 2018

This page is due for review January 2020

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