Soft tissue sarcoma

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma, we can provide the information you need, from understanding the cancer itself, to choosing the right treatment, to finding support.

What you should know about soft tissue sarcomas

  • Soft tissue sarcomas are tumours that grow in the soft tissues of your body. These tissues include muscle, fat, blood vessels, or any tissue that surrounds organs.
  • The cause of soft tissue sarcomas is unknown. Your risk of developing them increases if you have certain inherited conditions, been exposed to certain viruses, chemicals or previous radiotherapy.
  • The symptoms of soft tissue sarcomas vary depending on the area where they occur. One of the main symptoms is a lump deep in your body, increasing in size, and painful and tender.
  • Soft tissue sarcomas are diagnosed by core needle biopsy, surgical biopsy and scans such as MRI, CT, Ultrasound and PET.
  • Soft tissue sarcomas are treated by surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and biological therapy.

What are soft tissue sarcomas?

  • Soft tissue sarcomas are cancers that develop from cells in the soft, supporting tissues of your body. They can occur in muscles, fat, blood vessels or in any of the other tissues that support, surround and protect the organs of your body.
  • Soft tissue sarcomas can also develop in your womb (uterus), stomach, skin and small bowel. Almost half of all soft tissue sarcomas occur in limbs, especially the legs. Other common sites are the chest, tummy (abdomen) and pelvis. They may also occur in your head and neck, but this is less common.

How common are soft tissue sarcomas?

Soft tissue sarcomas occur slightly more often in men than women. They generally develop in people over the age of 30. Sometimes they occur in children and teenagers.

Soft tissue sarcomas are rare. There were a total of 129 cases registered in Ireland in the year 2009 of which 49 were female and 80 male.

What are the types of soft tissue sarcomas?

Soft tissue sarcomas are named after the tissues in which they first grow. They include:

Fibrosarcomas: These tumours start in the fibrous tissues that hold muscles, bones and organs together. They are most commonly found on your arms, legs or trunk. Most people first notice them as a painless, firm lump.

Myxofibrosarcomas: This is the most common type of sarcoma in older people. It can affect any part of your body, but mostly your arms and legs.

Desmoid tumours: These tumours are fibrous sarcomas that are slow growing. They tend to spread to nearby tissues but not to other parts of your body.

Synovial sarcomas: Synovial sarcomas usually start to grow near your joints. For example, your knee or elbow. But they can also occur in any part of your body. They usually appear as hard lumps and are more common in younger adults.

Liposarcoma: These sarcomas start in your body´s fat cells. They affect middle-aged people. Some grow very slowly and may take years to develop.

Rhabdomyosarcomas: This sarcoma is a cancer made up of cells that normally develops in the muscles you can control. These muscles are known as skeletal muscle or striated muscle. Rhabdomyosarcomas occur mostly in the head, neck and pelvis, but can occur in the arms and legs. There are three sub-types also: embroyonal,alveolar and pleomorphic.

Leiomyosarcomas: These sarcomas start from smooth muscle that is not under your conscious control. They form in the walls of your womb, stomach, intestine and blood vessels. It is one of the most common types of sarcoma and can occur anywhere in your body. Malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumours (MPNST): These sarcomas start to grow in the cells that cover nerve cells. They can occur anywhere in your body. They are also known as malignant schwannomas or neurofibrosarcomas. They most commonly occur in people who have had a rare genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis (von Recklinghausen´s disease).

Angiosarcoma: Angiosarcomas start from cells in the walls of your blood or lymph vessels. If they start to grow in your blood vessels, they are called haemangiosarcomas. If they start from your lymph vessels, they are called lymphangiosarcomas.

Gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GIST): These sarcomas develop from the connective tissue in the walls of your digestive system. They behave differently from other types of sarcoma and are treated differently.

Kaposi´s sarcoma: Kaposi´s sarcoma starts from cells in your skin. Coloured patches or lumps can develop in your skin, mouth, lymph nodes or internal organs. This includes your lung, liver or spleen. Kaposi´s sarcoma can affect people with a weakened immune system due to HIV and AIDS.

Rarer types

There are other much rarer types of sarcomas. These include bone sarcomas known as osteosarcomas, Ewing´s tumours, and soft tissue sarcomas in children. Soft tissue sarcomas in children differ from those in adults and their symptoms and treatment may be different.

Cancer publications

For booklets and factsheets, including information about cancer types, treatments, side-effects, emotional effects, financial information and more. Visit our publications section.

Useful resources

Note: Links to external websites are listed below. The Irish Cancer Society is not responsible for the contents of external websites.

Date Last Revised: 
Friday, February 13, 2015