Sarcomas affect people of all ages, races and sexes. They are quite rare in the United States, with about 5,500 new cases diagnosed every year. Sarcomas represent only one percent of all cancer cases.
Sarcomas occur in the soft tissues that connect, support or surround various parts of the body, including muscles, tendons, fat and blood vessels. Sarcomas can develop in numerous places because connective tissues are everywhere in the body, making up half of the total body weight.
Painless but noticeable lumps or swellings may occur when soft, elastic tissues are pushed out by a growing tumor. When the disease gets worse, tumors might cause pain or soreness as they push against nerves or muscles. About half of these types of tumors occur in the arms and legs.
Causes and Risk Factors
Little is known about the actual causes of sarcomas. Sarcomas comprise up to 6.5 percent of all cancers in children 15 years of age and younger, ranking fifth in cancer cases in children of that age group. There is no strong evidence showing gene transmission in the family. However, sarcomas may occur more often in patients with certain hereditary conditions, including Werner's syndrome, Gardner's syndrome and multiple neurofibromatosis.
Certain chemicals and various viruses have been shown to cause sarcoma in laboratory animals, but there is no convincing evidence that these factors cause sarcomas in humans. Substances found in weed-killers and wood preservatives have been studied as risk factors, but they have never been proven as a strong reason for having sarcomas.
No screening tests for the disease are yet available. If there are symptoms, the doctor may take a small sample (biopsy) from the swollen area and examine it for cancer cells.
Treatment depends on the stage of the disease. The way the cancer cells look under the microscope is more important than the size. The more abnormal the cells are, the later the stage of the disease. Even after sarcomas have been treated, they may recur in the original area or in another part of the body.