What You Should Know About Sarcoma, a ‘Forgotten Cancer’
You’ve discovered an unexplained lump in your child’s knee that isn’t painful and can’t be connected to an injury or fall. Surely it isn’t cancer. Or could it be a rare form of cancer known as sarcoma?
Referred to as a “forgotten cancer” due to its rarity, sarcoma accounts for about one percent of all adult cancer diagnoses but is seen more commonly in children and teens.
Because it forms deep in the body, sarcoma can be difficult to detect in its early stages. With Sarcoma Awareness Month in July, here’s what you should know about the signs and risk factors associated with sarcoma.
What is sarcoma?
Sarcomas are a rare and varied group of cancers and are more prevalent in children than adults. They affect the body’s connective tissue and are categorized based on whether they arise in soft tissue or bone. They can occur anywhere in the body, but most usually form in the legs, hands, arms, abdomen, head, neck, and chest.
Soft tissue sarcomas typically originate from cells of muscle, fat, nerves, fibrous tissue, or blood vessels, primarily found in the arms and legs.
The most common types that affect bone include osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma.
- Osteosarcoma is found most often in the bones around the knee, and it impacts the part of the bone that gives bone its strength.
- Ewing sarcoma most often occurs in the bones of the pelvis, chest wall, or the middle of long leg bones, but it can also present in soft tissue.
What is my – or my child’s – risk of developing sarcoma?
While there are no definitive reasons for the development of sarcoma, risk factors include receiving high doses of radiation therapy (likely treating other cancers) or damage to the lymph system through surgery or radiation. Other risk factors include exposure to certain herbicides and individuals with inherited diseases, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome and retinoblastoma.
If your family has a history of sarcoma or other cancers that developed at a young age, you should discuss the benefits of genetic testing with your physician.
What are the signs and symptoms of sarcoma?
Sarcoma can go undetected for a long period of time. Often, people will notice a lump that may or may not hurt and has grown over time (weeks to months). As the tumor grows, it can cause increasing pain, swelling, bone fractures, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the affected limbs.
Approximately four in 10 sarcomas begin in the abdomen. The symptoms often come from other problems caused by the tumor, such as blockage or bleeding of the stomach or bowels. The tumor can press on nerves, blood vessels, or nearby organs and may even grow large enough to be felt in the belly.
How is sarcoma treated?
Once sarcoma is diagnosed, treatment is based on a variety of factors including the type, size, location, and stage of the tumor, as well as the patient’s overall health.
If the tumor is found at an early stage and has not spread, surgery is often an effective option, and many patients are cured. Some patients may receive additional treatments, such as radiation or chemotherapy, to improve the chances of eliminating all cancerous cells.
While there are no known ways to completely prevent the development of sarcoma, regular checkups with your physician are important for early detection. If you are diagnosed with sarcoma or any other type of cancer, an early diagnosis is key to a better outcome from treatment and an increased chance of survival.