Soft tissue sarcomas

Soft tissue sarcomas are a group of cancers that happen in connective tissues in the body. Connective tissues connect, support and protect our body structures and organs. They include fat, muscle, nerves and blood vessels. They can develop anywhere in the body, but most commonly happen in the arms and legs.

Types of soft tissue sarcomas

There are different types of soft tissue sarcomas, but the ones that are most common in young people are:

  • Rhabdomyosarcoma which happens in the muscle and surrounding tissue
  • Synovial sarcoma, which usually happens in the tissue around the joints such as the knee, elbow or ankle
  • Soft tissue Ewing sarcoma which happens in the soft tissue around the bone
  • Fibrosarcoma, which happens in the fibrous tissue in the body (tissue that joins body structures together, for example, the tissue that joins the muscles to the bones).

If you or your child has been diagnosed with a different type of soft tissue sarcoma, talk to your specialist for more information about that particular type of cancer and its treatment.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of soft tissue sarcomas normally depend on where the cancer develops. You might notice a lump or swelling if it happens in your arm or leg, have pain or feel constipated if it starts in your stomach or breathlessness if it happens around your chest.

How is it diagnosed?

Soft tissues sarcomas are normally diagnosed after a number of tests in a hospital. This normally includes a physical examination by a specialist, an ultrasound or MRI scan and taking a sample of affected tissue to test (biopsy).

You may have further tests if your specialist thinks that your cancer, in the form of a tumour, or lump, may have spread.

The specialist will be able to work out the stage of cancer from these tests. The stage is the size of the tumour and whether it has spread to other parts of your body.

How is it treated?

The main treatments for soft tissue sarcomas are normally surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Your exact treatment will depend on the type of sarcoma you have, and how far the tumour has spread, so it’s best to talk to your specialist for further information.

Chemotherapy, which uses anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells, is usually given as an injection or through a drip every 3–4 weeks for four or more sessions of treatment. A course of radiotherapy, where radiation is used to kill cancer cells, usually lasts about 5 to 8 weeks.

What happens after treatment?

You will still need to attend an outpatient clinic regularly so your specialist can check your progress and make sure your cancer hasn’t come back.

Many people don’t have long-term health problems following treatment, but some do. Talk to your specialist about the potential long-term side effects of your treatment.

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