A medical professional exams the inside of a patient's forearm in a medical room.

Unlocking the Mysteries of Sarcomas

  • If you’re like many people, you might have an idea that the word Sarcoma has something to do with cancer. But beyond that? Chances are there’s just a big question mark.

    Here’s a look at what sarcomas are, where they come from, and who could be at risk for getting one.   

    Sarcomas are different from other types of cancers

    “Sarcomas are a rare family of tumors,” said Jeffrey M. Farma, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center.

    These tumors form in the bone or in soft tissues like muscle, fat, or blood vessels. They often start in the arms or legs, but they can be found anywhere in the body, including deep in the abdomen.

    “There’s upwards of 70 different types of sarcomas, and they all behave differently,” Farma explained.

    The one thing they have in common? Sarcomas are very rare, affecting about 13,000 people in the U.S. each year. And unlike many other types of cancer, the risk for getting a sarcoma isn’t affected by lifestyle factors like smoking, diet, or exercise. In fact, “most sarcomas are sporadic—they just happen,” Farma said. But a small number of patients have a genetic predisposition to sarcomas. Exposure to radiation given to treat other cancers can also make sarcomas more likely in rare situations.

    People who get sarcomas don’t always realize it

    Many sarcomas are marked by a hard lump or bump. The masses can range from pea-sized to much larger, and they might feel pain or cause a tingling sensation. But that’s not always the case.

    “A lot of times patients don’t have symptoms,” Farma said. Sometimes sarcomas get picked up incidentally during routine health scans.

    That’s not to say you can’t take steps to find sarcomas early. If you notice a mass, especially one that hurts, feels firm, or gets bigger, you should have it evaluated, Farma said. Worsening abdominal pain, an abdominal mass or change in bowel habits also warrant a visit to the doctor.

    There are different ways to treat sarcomas

    A multi-pronged approach is usually best. Most sarcomas need to be surgically removed. But undergoing chemotherapy or radiation before or after surgery could help keep the sarcoma from spreading or coming back—especially if the sarcoma is aggressive, Farma explained.

    Sarcomas are best treated by dedicated experts   

    Because sarcomas are so uncommon, it’s especially important to have them treated by experienced sarcoma specialists at an NCI-dedicated Comprehensive Cancer Centers like Fox Chase.

     “Everyone involved on our team has seen thousands of these rare types of cancers,” Farma said.

    Finding a treatment center with knowledge of the latest treatments for sarcomas is crucial. Here at Fox Chase, physicians are conducting breakthrough research and clinical trials for sarcoma patients. Our sarcoma tumor board also meets as a team weekly to devise targeted, personalized treatment plans for patients.

    And when it comes to recovering from a sarcoma, those things matter. “The chances for survival are better when you’re treated through a team approach with sarcoma experts,” Farma said. 

    Learn more about sarcoma treatment at Fox Chase Cancer Center.