Soft Tissue Sarcoma (Adult)

Overview

What is soft tissue sarcoma in adults?

Soft tissue sarcoma is the term for a large group of rare cancers with one thing in common: Each one affects your muscles, tendons, fat, lymph and blood vessels, and nerves. Nearly all soft tissue sarcomas in adults develop in your arms and legs, chest and stomach.

Like many types of cancer, early diagnosis and treatment of soft tissue sarcoma increase the likelihood of longer-term survival. Overall, approximately 65% of adults treated for soft tissue sarcoma are alive five years after treatment. That survival rate increases to 81% for people whose cancer is diagnosed and treated before it spreads.

Who does soft tissue sarcoma affect?

Each year, approximately four people per 100,000 are diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma. Men are slightly more likely than women to develop soft tissue sarcoma. Black people have the highest incidences of soft tissue sarcoma.

What is the most common soft tissue sarcoma in adults?

The most common soft tissue sarcomas in adults are:

  • Undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma: This is an aggressive type of malignant soft tissue tumor that is quick to spread to other parts of your body. It usually arises in the legs, arms or trunk.
  • Liposarcoma: This tumor develops in your fat tissue. It typically is found in your stomach, but is also often found in your thighs and other areas of your body.
  • Leiomyosarcoma: This form of cancer starts in your smooth muscle tissue and can arise anywhere, with the stomach and uterus being the most common locations.

How do soft tissue sarcomas affect my body?

Generally speaking, you can have a soft tissue sarcoma for some time before you notice something different about your body. Common soft tissue sarcoma symptoms are painless lumps or swollen areas of your body that don't go away.

Is soft tissue sarcoma deadly?

Soft tissue sarcoma is a serious illness that can be successfully treated if diagnosed before it spreads. Overall, approximately 65% of adults treated for soft tissue sarcoma are alive five years after treatment.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma in adults?

Soft tissue sarcoma symptoms can seem like common problems that will go away. The difference is the problems persist, and usually become more noticeable. You might have:

  • Swelling under the skin can cause a painless lump that you cannot move and that you notice becomes larger over time.
  • Swelling in your stomach might cause pain, constipation or a persistent feeling of fullness.
  • Swelling near your lungs might make you cough or feel breathless.
  • Pain caused by soft tissue sarcoma pressing on nerves.

Other more general symptoms might include:

When should I suspect a symptom is a soft tissue sarcoma?

Many soft tissue sarcoma symptoms are similar to other, less serious conditions. You should talk to your healthcare provider if you have symptoms that persist or get worse over time. When caught early, soft tissue sarcoma can be treated and increase your chance of long-term survival.

What causes soft tissue sarcoma?

Researchers are still unraveling soft tissue sarcoma's specific cause. Current thinking is that the cancer might be triggered by:

  • Changes in your DNA that cause healthy cells to become cancerous.
  • Rare hereditary syndromes make it more likely you'll develop soft tissue sarcoma.
  • Environmental factors such as exposure to certain chemicals or receiving radiation treatment for a different kind of cancer.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is soft tissue sarcoma diagnosed?

Healthcare providers will use a variety of imaging tests to begin diagnosis:

How do healthcare providers confirm that I have soft tissue sarcoma?

Your providers will perform a biopsy to establish a definitive diagnosis. Biopsies are done in different ways, depending on what imaging tests show:

  • Fine needle biopsy (Fine needle aspiration). Healthcare providers use a very thin hollow needle to remove fluid and tiny pieces of tissue from your tumor.
  • Core biopsy. Healthcare providers use a needle to remove a small cylinder of tissue.

The final step is done by pathologists who review your tissue with a microscope to determine the type of sarcoma you have.

What does it mean when a healthcare provider stages a soft tissue sarcoma?

When providers stage your soft tissue sarcoma, they look to see if your cancer has spread and if it has, how far it has spread. Staging helps providers decide how to treat your cancer.

Soft tissue sarcoma stages range from I (1) through IV (4). If your cancer hasn't spread, it will have a lower number and a letter appearing earlier in the alphabet. Providers consider the following information when staging your soft tissue sarcoma:

  • Its size.
  • Whether it has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Whether it has spread to organs located further from original cancer.
  • Its appearance, meaning how closely the cancerous cells resemble normal cells.

Management and Treatment

How do healthcare providers treat soft tissue sarcoma?

Providers might use one or several of the following treatments:

What treatment side effects or complications should I expect?

Healthcare providers typically use several types of treatment, each with different side effects and potential complications. And their approach might change as you go through treatment. Talking to your provider about treatments, side effects and complications can help you feel more prepared. Your provider will also have suggestions for managing treatment side effects.

Prevention

What can I do to reduce my risk of developing soft tissue sarcoma?

While researchers don’t know all risk factors for soft tissue sarcoma, they believe the following factors might increase your risk:

  • Hereditary risk: There are a few medical conditions that you can inherit from family members. Knowing your family has a history of related medical conditions helps you and your provider understand your potential risks.
  • Environmental risk: You might develop soft tissue sarcoma if you had cancer that was treated with radiation therapy. Researchers are also evaluating exposure to certain chemicals used in agriculture.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have soft tissue sarcoma?

Your treatment will vary based on what healthcare providers know about your cancer. Soft tissue sarcomas that are diagnosed early can sometimes be treated with surgery alone. Other times, your soft tissue sarcoma might require chemotherapy or radiation therapy that might take several weeks or months to complete.

Once your treatment is complete, you likely will follow up with your healthcare provider for the next several years.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

Soft tissue sarcoma treatment is a marathon, not a sprint. Here are some suggestions to help you through that journey:

  • Chemotherapy treatments might affect your appetite. Try to eat a healthy diet, and talk to a nutritionist if you're having trouble eating.
  • Radiation treatment can leave you feeling exhausted. Plan to rest as much as possible during your treatment.
  • Surgery might affect your ability to participate in daily activities. Talk to your provider about physical therapy that can help you regain your strength.
  • Cancer is stressful. You might find activities such as meditation, relaxation exercises or deep breathing help to ease your stress.
  • Reach out for support from others who've been in your situation. Your healthcare provider can direct you to support groups and programs where you can share your thoughts and feelings with people who understand what you're going through.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

You should contact your provider if you're having unexpected or unusual side effects from treatment or you notice changes in your body.

When should I go to the emergency room?

Many cancer treatments affect your immune system, increasing the chance you will develop infections. You might also experience unusually strong side effects from your cancer treatment.

While your healthcare provider likely gave you medication to help control your side effects, you should go to the emergency room if your side effects continue despite medication. Symptoms that might require an emergency room visit are:

  • Fever of 100.5 and above.
  • Chills.
  • Productive or "wet" cough.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Persistent diarrhea.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

A cancer diagnosis can come as a shock. Give yourself some time to process your feelings. Then think about all the things you want to know about your diagnosis. Here are some questions you might have:

  • What kind of cancer do I have?
  • What stage is my cancer?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are the typical side effects of treatment?
  • What is my prognosis?
  • If you remove my cancer, will it come back?
  • Do you know if my cancer has spread?
  • What caused my cancer?

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the differences between soft tissue sarcoma in children and soft tissue sarcoma in adults?

Children and adults respond differently to soft tissue sarcoma treatment. Children might have slightly better outcomes than adults.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Learning you have a rare form of cancer might make you anxious about coping with an uncommon illness. You probably have questions for which there are no certain answers. Creating a plan for living with cancer is one way to deal with uncertainty. That plan might start with learning as much as you can about your cancer, your treatment options and how those treatments might affect you. Having a plan to manage what's to come might help you feel less anxious and more confident. Your provider is there to answer your questions and support you as you develop your plan for living with cancer.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/31/2021.

References

  • American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Soft Tissue Sarcomas. (https://www.cancer.org/cancer/soft-tissue-sarcoma/about/key-statistics.html) Accessed 9/22/2021.
  • National Cancer Institute. Soft Tissue Sarcoma. (https://www.cancer.gov/types/soft-tissue-sarcoma) Accessed 9/22/2021.
  • National Library of Medicine. Adult Soft Tissue Treatment. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26389481/) Accessed 9/22/2021.
  • National Organization for Rare Diseases. Soft Tissue Sarcoma. (https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/soft-tissue-sarcoma/) Accessed 9/22/2021.

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