Soft tissue sarcomas

Sarcomas are rare. About 2,300 people a year in the UK are diagnosed with a sarcoma. This includes bone sarcomas as well as soft tissue sarcomas.

Soft tissue sarcomas are cancers that develop from cells in the soft, supporting tissues of the body. They can occur in soft tissues such as fat, muscle, nerves, fibrous tissues, blood vessels or in any of the other tissues that support, surround and protect the organs of the body.

Soft tissue sarcomas can develop in any part of the body. Most of them develop in the arms and legs, but they can also develop in specific organs such as the womb (uterus), stomach, skin and small bowel. Less commonly, they may occur in the head and neck.

There are many types of soft tissue sarcoma, and they tend to grow and develop differently. The most common types are

  • Fat tissue tumours
  • Muscle tissue tumours
  • Peripheral nerve tumours
  • Fibrous tissue tumours
  • Joint tissue tumours
  • Blood and lymph vessel tumours
  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GIST)
  • Kaposi's sarcoma (KS)
  • Ewing's tumours

Your doctor or specialist nurse can tell you more about which type you have.

Some types of sarcoma occur in children, teenagers and young adults, but generally they are more likely to develop in people over the age of 30.

Symptoms of soft tissue sarcomas

Sarcomas often don't cause any symptoms for a long time. They can start in any part of the body and the symptoms will depend on the part of the body that's affected.

If the sarcoma is in an arm or a leg, the most common symptom is an uncomfortable swelling in the affected limb. Occasionally, this swelling may be painful or tender, but it may also be painless.

If the sarcoma is in the central part of the body (the trunk), the symptoms will depend on which of the body's organs is affected. For example:

  • A sarcoma in a lung may cause a cough and breathlessness.
  • A sarcoma in the abdomen could cause abdominal pain, vomiting and constipation. A GIST may also cause bleeding into the bowel. This may cause you to vomit blood, pass dark bowel motions or develop symptoms of anaemia (a low number of red blood cells), such as shortness of breath or tiredness.
  • A sarcoma affecting the womb may cause bleeding from the vagina and pain in the lower part of the abdomen.

Usually, soft tissue sarcomas don't cause any symptoms until they are quite large and pressing on an organ in the body or on a nerve or muscle. Things to look out for include:

  • any lump, especially if it is increasing in size and is bigger than 5cm (2in)
  • any lump that is painful or tender
  • any lump that is deep in the body (ie not just under the skin)
  • any lump that has come back after being surgically removed.

If you notice any of the above, contact your GP, but remember that these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions.

*Information provided by Macmillan cancer support

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