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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Whats the difference? Carcinoma and sarcoma

CTCA,
Sarcoma and carcinoma
The Difference Between

The language of cancer can be a confusing mix of unpronounceable words, sound-alike terms and scientific jargon. But some of the nuances in cancer types, terms and titles may indicate deep differences in the diseases, diagnoses and treatments. This blog is an installment in an occasional series called “What's the difference?” designed to help clear up some of the confusion in cancer vocabulary and help increase our cancer IQ.

They are both cancer types. They both end in “oma,” a suffix meaning tumor or cancer. But that’s where the similarities between carcinoma and sarcoma end. Rather, these two cancers are different in more ways than they are alike, starting with the fact that carcinomas are very common and sarcomas are fairly rare. The biggest difference between the two, though, has nothing to do with how often they occur, but where.

The main difference between carcinomas and sarcomas comes down to tissue.

A carcinoma forms in the skin or tissue cells that line the body’s internal organs, such as the kidneys and liver. A sarcoma grows in the body’s connective tissue cells, which include fat, blood vessels, nerves, bones, muscles, deep skin tissues and cartilage.

Carcinomas are the most common type of cancer. 

Carcinoma subtypes include:

Symptoms and treatments for carcinoma depend on the subtype. Common symptoms of basal cell carcinoma include open sores, red patches, pink growths, and shiny bumps or scars. Squamous cell carcinomas, on the other hand, tend to crust or bleed, and may appear as scaly patches, open sores or warts. Treatment for carcinoma often includes surgery, radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.

Sarcomas have more than 50 subtypes

Sarcomas are categorized in two ways:

  • Soft tissue sarcoma, which forms in soft tissues
  • Bone sarcoma (or osteosarcoma), which develops in bone tissue, cartilage or bone marrow

The first sign of a sarcoma in an arm, leg or the torso is typically a painless lump or swelling. In general, sarcomas are treated with surgery, and are harder to treat than carcinomas.

New research, though, has found that some sarcomas have a greater immune response than others, and may respond to certain checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs are a type of immunotherapy that works by disrupting the communication signals that allow cancer cells to hide from the immune system, exposing the tumor to the body’s defenses. The study identified immune response patterns in common sarcoma subtypes, including leiomyosarcoma and liposarcoma, both soft tissue sarcomas. “Because ‘sarcoma’ is a general term and encompasses many different cancer subtypes, different sarcomas look different under a microscope, and treatment can’t be one-size-fits-all,” says Asha Karippot, MD, Medical Oncologist and Hematologist at our hospital in Tulsa. “That’s where the research is focused on in this area right now—developing treatments that can be individualized to each sarcoma.”

Learn about the difference between endometrial cancer and uterine sarcoma.