Sarcomas Are Malignant Connective Tissue Cancer

A sarcoma is a type of cancer. Sarcomas are less common than other well-known types of cancer, and there are over 70 different subtypes of sarcoma that have been described. These cancers come from connective tissue--the tissue that makes up the structure of the body. Sarcomas can develop in bone, cartilage, muscle, nerve and other types of connective tissue, and may occur throughout the body.

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Where Sarcomas Come From

The word "sarcoma" comes from a Greek word meaning "fleshy." Sarcomas arise from mesenchymal tissue. This tissue is the precursor to the body's connective tissue. Some of the more common types of sarcoma include:

Some risk factors can make people more susceptible to developing a carcinoma. These include conditions such as Paget's disease and neurofibromatosis as well as a family history of sarcoma. In addition, exposure to radiation, such as with the treatment of another cancer, can increase the risk of developing a sarcoma.

Carcinoma vs. Sarcoma

Most people are more familiar with carcinomas, cancers that occur in organs such as the lung, breast, and colon. Carcinomas are cancers that develop in epithelial cells, which are the cells covering the internal organs and the outer surfaces of the body.

Sarcomas are cancers that develop in mesenchymal cells, which are the cells that make up both bones and soft tissues, such as muscles, tendons, and blood vessels.

One major difference between sarcomas and carcinomas is the way in which these cancers spread through the body. Sarcomas tend to spread through the blood, often to the lung. Carcinomas tend to spread through lymph fluid and blood, most frequently to nearby lymph nodes, liver, and bone, but they can also spread to the lung.

As mentioned, carcinomas are much more common than sarcomas. Carcinomas represent about 90% of all cancers, and sarcomas about 1%. Sarcomas tend to occur in two distinct age groups: the very young and the elderly.

Sarcomas most often grow in a ball-like shape and begin to cause pain when they press on nearby structures. One of the characteristic symptoms of a sarcoma is pain that occurs at night, often keeping people awake or awakening them from sleep. Diagnosis of a sarcoma requires obtaining a sample, called a biopsy, of the abnormal tissue. The biopsy will allow your healthcare provider to determine the type of sarcoma, as well as to learn about how aggressive the tumor appears. This information is important to help guide the most appropriate treatment.

Treatment of Sarcoma

The treatment of a sarcoma depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Type of sarcoma
  • The grade (high grade or low grade) of the tumor
  • If the tumor has spread (metastasized)

Sarcomas can often be treated by surgical resection of the mass, and if there has been no spread of the tumor, this can sometimes lead to the cure. In more aggressive (high-grade) tumors, or in tumors that have spread, additional treatment is typically necessary. This may include radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or both. Often, with larger tumors, treatment with chemotherapy prior to surgical resection can be an effective way to shrink the size of the tumor and make for an easier surgical treatment.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Moffitt Cancer Center. What are the different types of sarcoma?

  2. American Cancer Society. Risk factors for soft tissue sarcomas.

  3. Cancer Research UK. What are soft tissue sarcomas?

  4. National Cancer Institute. Metastatic cancer: When cancer spreads.

  5. American Cancer Society. Cancer facts & figures 2021.

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.