Did you know that the human body consists of 206 bones? Providing shape and support to your body, facilitating movement and functioning as a protective shield for vital organs, our bones are certainly crucial, which is why it’s important to ensure they are looked after by consuming enough calcium and checking for density issues as you get older.
One lesser-known condition that affects bones is sarcoma, a form of cancer that originates in the bones, muscles, and/or other soft tissues in various parts of the body. It can develop in people of all ages, and accounts for about 1% of all adult cancers and 15% of paediatric cancers.
While there are many subtypes of sarcoma, there are two main classifications:
- Soft-tissue sarcoma
Soft-tissue sarcoma typically originates in muscles, fat, nerves, and tendons. It encompasses specific subtypes such as rhabdomyosarcoma, vascular tumours, and Kaposi sarcoma.
- Bone sarcoma
Also known as osteosarcoma, this is the most prevalent type of bone cancer, and is commonly seen affecting the larger bones in the arms or legs.
Since osteosarcoma tends to occur during periods of rapid bone growth, it is more prevalent among children and young adults, although it could happen to people of all ages.
How is sarcoma identified?
Symptoms may not always appear in the early stages of cancer. One common sign of soft-tissue sarcoma is a lump or swelling, often appearing under the skin of the arms or legs.
As the sarcoma grows bigger, it may begin to exert pressure on neighbouring organs, nerves, or muscles that may lead to pain or difficulty breathing.
Pain is also noted as the primary symptom experienced in bone cancer, although not all bone cancers necessarily cause pain.
Other symptoms include a lump that may feel soft and warm; limited range of motion in a joint; unexplained fever; or a bone fracture occurring without apparent cause.
How is it diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects sarcoma, a physical examination or imaging tests such as X-ray, ultrasound, or CT or PET scan will be ordered.
Your doctor may also choose to run a biopsy and/or blood tests to confirm the diagnosis and assess the severity of the disease.
Causes of sarcoma
The exact causes of sarcoma remain unclear, but here are some known risk factors:
1. History of radiation therapy
Patients who have undergone radiation therapy for previous cancers are said to possess a higher risk of developing secondary cancers like sarcoma.
It is, therefore, important for them to go for routine follow-up screenings and remain vigilant for signs or symptoms of sarcoma and associated complications.
2. Genetic disorders
Patients with a family history of inherited disorders such as Von Recklinghausen’s disease (aka neurofibromatosis), Werner syndrome, Gardner syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and Li-Fraumeni syndrome are all thought to have a higher risk of developing sarcoma.
These genetic conditions are associated with specific gene mutations that can disrupt normal cell growth and increase the likelihood of sarcoma development.
3. Chemical exposure
Long-term exposure to vinyl chloride monomer (a substance used to make plastics), dioxin, or arsenic have been reported to increase the risk of sarcoma. That said, most sarcomas are not directly linked with specific environmental hazards.
4. Long-term swelling
Lymphedema – or swelling in the arms or legs due to surgery, radiation therapy, infection, or underlying conditions that impair the lymphatic system for an extended period – could also increase the risk of developing sarcoma.
Notwithstanding the above, it is important to note that in most instances, sarcoma usually occurs without a clear or identifiable cause.
Treatment options depend on factors such as the type, stage, location, and extent of the cancer, as well as the individual’s overall health.
A multidisciplinary/multimodal approach involving a team of medical professionals is often employed to curate a personalised treatment plan, especially for cancers that are high-grade and larger than 5cm.
Radiation and chemotherapy may be used before surgery to shrink the tumour and ease removal.
The best treatment for sarcoma is surgery if it is in the early stages or of low grade (unlikely to spread to other parts of the body). There are patients with soft-tissue sarcoma who have been successfully treated through surgery alone.
All in all, sarcoma is relatively rare compared with other types of cancer, and its diagnosis and treatment can be challenging. Depending on the specific subtype, location, and stage, treatment may involve a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy or even immunotherapy.
Early detection and timely treatment are essential to optimise treatment outcomes. If you or someone you know is concerned about sarcoma or experiencing related symptoms, consult a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment options.
This article was written by DOC2US, a mobile application that allows you to talk to a doctor or any healthcare professionals via text chat at any time and from anywhere.