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Sarcoma Awareness

What is Sarcoma and what causes it?

Sarcomas are a rare kind of cancer. Sarcomas are different from common carcinomas because they happen in different kinds of tissue. Sarcomas grow in connective tissue which are cells that connect or support other kinds of tissue in your body. These tumours are most common in the bones, muscles, tendons, cartilage, nerves, fat, and blood vessels of your arms and legs, but they can also happen in other areas of your body. Although there are more than 50 types of sarcomas, they can be grouped into two main kinds of i.e., soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma.

Who is most at risk of getting Sarcoma?

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes most sarcomas as they tend to occur sporadically, with little or no family history, but they have found some risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop these cancers. One of the risk factors is exposure to previous radiation therapy for other types of cancer which may develop into sarcoma later on. Genetic factors for example people with syndromes such as neurofibromatosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, familial retinoblastoma, and tuberous sclerosis appear to have a higher risk. Exposure to chemicals such as vinyl chloride, dioxins, and phenoxyacetic herbicides may increase the risk, but more evidence is needed to confirm this. Viruses such as Human Herpesvirus 8 can cause Kaposi’s sarcoma.

What are its symptoms?

About half of soft tissue sarcomas start in an arm or leg. Most people notice a lump over time which is growing from weeks to months. The lump may or may not hurt. When sarcomas grow in the back of the abdomen (the retroperitoneum) they may cause blockage or bleeding of the stomach or bowels. They can press on nerves, blood vessels, or nearby organs. They can grow large enough for the tumour to be felt in the belly. Sometimes the tumours cause pain. In rare cases, sarcomas can start in the chest or in the head or neck. In the case of bone sarcoma, the first sign may be a pain, with or without a lump. It often affects the long bones in the arm or leg or the pelvis.

Are there different stages of Sarcoma? If so, what are they?

After someone is diagnosed with sarcoma, doctors will try to figure out if it has spread. This process is called staging. The stage of cancer describes how much cancer is in the body. It helps determine how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it. The stages of soft tissue sarcomas range from stage I through IV. As a rule, the lower the number, the less cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV, means cancer has spread more. Although each person’s cancer experience is unique, cancers with similar stages tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way. The grade is partly used to determine the stage of a sarcoma. The staging system divides sarcomas into 3 grades (1 to 3). The grade of a sarcoma helps predict how rapidly it will grow and spread. Tumour size and the involved lymph nodes play an important role in staging sarcoma as well.

How is Sarcoma treated?

Sarcoma is usually treated with surgery to remove cancer. Other treatments might be used before or after surgery. Which treatments are best for you will depend on the type of sarcoma, its location, how aggressive the cells are, and whether cancer has spread to other parts of your body. The goal of surgery for sarcoma is to remove all the cancer cells. Sometimes it is necessary to amputate an arm or leg to remove all cancer, but surgeons try to preserve limb function when possible. Sometimes all cancer cannot be removed without hurting important structures, such as nerves or organs. In these situations, the surgeons work to remove as much of the sarcoma as possible. Radiation therapy uses high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays to kill cancer cells at the affected location. Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Some types of sarcomas are more likely to respond to chemotherapy treatment than others. Targeted therapy is a drug treatment that uses medicines to attack specific genes or mutations in cancer cells.

Are there any long-term complications/effects on your overall health if you have Sarcoma?

The outlook for a person with sarcoma will depend on factors such as the type, grade, and location. Doctors use statistics to work out approximately how many people with cancer will survive for 5 years or more after a diagnosis. For soft tissue sarcoma, the chance of surviving at least 5 more years after diagnosis is 81% if the sarcoma is localized, 58% if it has spread to nearby tissues (regional), 16% if it has reached other organs in the body (distant). For bone sarcoma, the average 5-year survival rates are 77% for localized cancer, 65% for regional cancer, 27% for distant cancer.  Many people live for longer than 5 years after diagnosis thanks to new medical discoveries, these percentages continue to improve.

Individual factors, such as age and overall health, will impact the chance of survival for each person. As with other types of cancer, the outlook is better if a person receives a diagnosis and begins treatment in the early stages.