Sarcomas are rare tumours that arise in bone, cartilage or other soft tissues (eg fat, muscle, nerves, blood vessels). They comprise only one percent of all cancers diagnosed.
Sarcomas most commonly develop in the arms or legs but can also grow in the pelvis, abdomen, chest, head and neck region or within internal organs.
There are many different types of sarcomas and, given their rarity, management is generally supervised by a specialised sarcoma unit.
What Are the Causes of Sarcomas?
The causes of the vast majority of sarcomas are unknown. There are several known risk factors but these apply to a very small number of cases of sarcoma.Some rare, inherited genetic conditions can put people at more risk of sarcoma, for example, neurofibromatosis, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Gardner syndrome, retinoblastoma. There can also be a very small risk for people who’ve had previous radiation therapy. The risk is higher for people who had high doses of radiation therapy at a very young age.
Most people who’ve had radiation therapy in the past won’t develop a sarcoma. Exposure to certain chemicals at high doses (eg phenoxyacetic acid) may be a risk factor but this is not known for certain.
A previous injury is not a risk factor for developing a sarcoma.
What Are the Symptoms of Sarcomas?
Sarcoma typically presents as a painless lump. Other symptoms will depend on where in the body the sarcoma is.
What Are the Treatments for Sarcomas?
The main types of treatment for sarcomas are surgery, radiation therapy and drug therapy (eg chemotherapy or “targeted” therapies). There are many different types of sarcomas and each will have its own treatment pathway depending on the person’s age, the sarcoma subtype, its location and whether or not it has spread. Due to their rarity, sarcomas are generally managed within (or in close consultation with) specialised sarcoma units. Most people who have localised sarcoma (i.e. it has not spread from where it started) will have their tumour removed surgically.
Radiation therapy can be used in addition to surgery in certain circumstances to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back or to help preserve the function of the area being treated (eg to avoid the need to amputate a limb). In some situations radiation therapy may be used instead of surgery to treat the initial site of disease or sites of limited spread.
Chemotherapy is commonly used for childhood sarcomas and bone sarcomas but is only selectively used in the initial curative treatment of adult soft tissue sarcomas. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are commonly used to palliate sarcomas that have metastasised (spread to other parts of the body).
What Are the Side Effects of Radiation Therapy?
The side effects of radiation therapy for sarcoma will depend on what part of the body is receiving radiation therapy and what dose is required to treat that particular tumour.
General side effects during treatment can include fatigue and irritation of the site being treated (eg skin reddening, dryness, discomfort). Where radiation is used before surgery to improve control and long term function, there can be a slight increased risk of post-operative wound complications in the short term.
Whilst radiation therapy is used to help preserve function, long term side effects can include some stiffening (fibrosis) of the treated area.
The best person to discuss radiation therapy for lung cancer with is a Radiation Oncologist. You can ask your respiratory physician (lung specialist) or general practitioner (GP) for a referral to a Radiation Oncologist for a discussion about how radiation therapy might fit into your treatment program.
Find your closest radiation oncology Treatment Centre