Definition of Sarcoma

Cancers of the Connective Tissue Are Called Sarcomas

sarcoma
Science Photo Library - STEVE GSCHMEISSNER / Getty Images

A sarcoma is a type of cancer. Sarcomas are less common than many well known types of cancer, and there are over 50 different types of sarcoma that have been described.  These cancers come from the connective tissue of our body--the tissue that makes up the structure of the body.  Therefore, sarcomas come from bone, cartilage, muscle, nerve and other types of connective tissue, and can occur throughout the body.

Where They Come From

The word 'sarcoma' comes from the Greek word meaning fleshy. Sarcomas arise from tissue of a specific origin, called mesenchymal tissue. This tissue is the precursor to the body's connective tissue.  Some of the more common types of sarcoma include:

  • Osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer)
  • Liposarcoma (cancer of fat tissue)
  • Chondrosarcoma (cancer of cartilage cells)
  • Angiosarcoma (cancer of the blood vessels)

Some conditions and risk-factors can make people more susceptible to developing a carcinoma.  These include conditions such as Paget's disease, neurofibromatosis, and a family history of sarcoma.  In addition, exposure to radiation, such as with treatment of another cancer, can increase the risk of developing a sarcoma.

Carcinoma vs. Sarcoma

Most people are more familiar with carcinomas, cancers that occur in organs such as the lung, breast, and colon. One major difference between sarcomas and carcinomas is the way in which these cancers spread through the body.

Sarcomas spread through the blood, often to the lung. Carcinomas spread through lymph fluid and blood, most frequently to nearby lymph nodes, liver, and bone.

As mentioned, carcinomas are much more common than sarcomas.  Carcinoma represents about 90% of all cancers, and sarcomas are about 1%.  Sarcomas tend to occur in two distinct age groups, the very young and the elderly.

 

Sarcomas most often grow in a ball-like shape, and begin to cause pain when they press on nearby structures.  One of the characteristic symptoms of a sarcoma is pain that occurs at night, often keeping people awake or awakening them from sleep.  Diagnosis of a sarcoma requires obtaining a sample of the abnormal tissue, called a biopsy.  The biopsy will allow your doctor to determine the type of sarcoma, and also learn about how aggressive the tumor appears.  This information is important to help guide the most appropriate treatment.

Treatment of Sarcoma

The treatment of a sarcoma depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Type of sarcoma
  • The grade (high grade or low grade) of the tumor
  • If the tumor has spread (metastasized)

Sarcomas can often be treated by surgical resection of the mass, and if there has been no spread of the tumor this can sometimes lead to cure.  In more aggressive (high grade) tumors, or in tumors that have spread, additional treatment is typically necessary.  This may include radiation treatment and/or chemotherapy.

  Often with larger tumors, treatment with chemotherapy prior to surgical resection can be an effective way to shrink the size of the tumor and make for an easier surgical treatment.

Continue Reading