July is Sarcoma Awareness Month. Deemed the “forgotten cancer” because of its rarity, sarcoma is cancer of the connective tissue. In general, there are two types of sarcoma: soft tissue and bone. Soft tissue sarcomas develop in muscles, tendons, fat, blood vessels, nerves, joints and tissues that surround joints.
Dr. Vivek Khemka, a medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Western Regional Medical Center, says, “Sarcoma can be considered as a group of diseases rather than a specific disease. For most sarcomas, the cause is not known. Genetic conditions, radiation exposure and some chemicals may increase the risk of sarcoma in some individuals. It is important to remember though that even if someone has a risk factor, it does not necessarily mean they will develop a sarcoma.”
Here are some quick facts about sarcoma:
- Sarcoma is very rare. Only 1 percent of all adult cancers are sarcomas. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates approximately 14,000 people will be diagnosed with sarcoma this year. In comparison, ACS estimates more than 228,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer. Soft tissue sarcoma is the more common of the two types. Bone sarcomas represent approximately 0.2 percent of cancer diagnoses.
- Sarcoma can develop nearly anywhere in the body. Common areas sarcoma tumors grow in include the legs, hands, arms, head, neck, chest, shoulders, abdomen and hips.
- There are approximately 50 subtypes of soft tissue sarcoma. Commons types are liposarcoma, leiomyosarcoma and malignant fibrous histiocytoma.
- Sarcomas are difficult to detect and diagnose. Dr. Khemka notes, "Often they are painless growths or in parts of the body where we cannot see them, such as in the abdominal cavity or organs. Sometimes they are found when scans are being done for other reasons."
- The only way to diagnose soft tissue sarcoma is by biopsy. A sample of the tumor must be removed and examined under a microscope by a pathologist, who then makes the diagnosis.
- Sarcomas are more common in children and young adults than other cancers. According to the Sarcoma Alliance, 15 percent of childhood cancers are sarcomas. It estimates between 1,500 and 1,700 children in the United States are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Dr. Khemka encourages people who have been diagnosed with sarcoma to go to a hospital with a multidisciplinary team experienced in sarcoma management.
"Multidisciplinary teams are getting better at limb preservation and preserving or restoring functionality after surgery for sarcoma that occurs in limbs," adds Dr. Khemka. "Also, for some sarcomas, oral medications have become available."
Learn more about soft tissue and bone sarcoma.