What is Sarcoma?

A tumour arises from a single cell that has lost the ability to determine its growth rate and lifespan due to alterations in the DNA contained within that cell.  Consequently that cell grows in an uncontrolled fashion and continues to grow and divide forming a lump or mass.  Malignant tumours develop the ability or have the potential to invade through lymphatic channels or into blood vessels and travel through the body, developing at new distant sites from the primary.  If this happens we call the new growth a metastasis.

Sarcomas are rare cancers or malignant tumours of the connective tissues and can arise in the soft tissues such as muscle, fat, blood vessels, fibrous tissue and nerves or in the hard tissue elements such as bone and cartilage.

Sarcoma is therefore a general term and contains many different types of malignant tumour which are named depending on their original tissue of origin. Broadly they are grouped into soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma .  Only soft tissue sarcoma will be discussed further.

Soft tissue sarcoma examples include:

  • Liposarcoma (A malignant tumour of fat cells)
  • Leiomyosarcoma (A malignant tumour of smooth muscle)
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma (A malignant tumour of striated muscle cells)
  • Fibrosarcoma (A malignant tumour of fibrous tissue)
  • Synovial sarcoma (A malignant tumour of synovial tissue)
  • Angiosarcoma (A malignant tumour of blood vessels)

Sarcomas are graded depending on certain pathological features into low grade, intermediate grade and high grade.  The higher the grade the greater the chance of the tumour returning following treatment and of distant spread.

Soft tissue sarcomas are extremely rare with, on average 3,300 new cases diagnosed each year.  This makes up only 1% of all cancer diagnoses.  They can occur in any part of the body, but are most commonly found in the lower limbs, upper limbs and trunk.  They are also found at the back of the abdomen (retroperitoneal sarcoma), female reproductive organs (gynaecological sarcoma) and in the gastrointestinal tract (Gastrointestinal stromal tumours - GIST).

They can affect all age groups although they represent 15% of all cancer diagnoses in children (0-14) and 63% of sarcoma patients are older than 50 years.

People can survive sarcoma if their cancer is detected early and before any distant spread has occurred, when treatments are more effective.  For this reason it is essential that patients with suspected sarcoma are referred to a specialist sarcoma centre as early as possible

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