What Is Soft Tissue Sarcoma?
Soft tissue sarcoma is cancer in one of the soft tissues. There are many different kinds of soft tissue sarcoma. In general, soft tissue sarcomas are rare. About 43% of soft tissue tumors start in the arms or legs. Most of the others are found in the torso, or trunk area. Less often, they are found in the head and neck or inside other organs, including the liver, lung, kidney, uterus, breast, gastrointestinal tract, or the abdominal cavity.
The words “soft tissue” confuse many people. Soft tissues are what hold the body together. They include muscles, tendons, blood vessels, fat, nerves, and deep skin tissues. Soft tissues do not include bones or other organs. Although body parts such as lungs, breasts, and colons are soft, they have specific functions. Because they perform very specific “jobs,” they are not considered soft tissue.
Soft Tissue Sarcoma Symptoms
People with early stage soft tissue sarcoma usually do not notice any symptoms. In fact, symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma may not appear until the cancer has grown for some time. The following are common symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma.
- A lump on the body, which is usually painless
- Stomach pain and vomiting
- A full feeling after not eating very much
- Blood in the stool (a red or tar-like black stool)
- Lack of appetite or weight loss
These symptoms may be the result of soft tissue sarcoma. They may also be symptoms of less serious illnesses. If you have any of these symptoms, see a doctor right away.
When lumps in the body’s soft tissues are found to be cancerous, they may be called soft tissue sarcomas.
Common soft tissue sarcomas
Soft Tissue Sarcoma Diagnosis
If you feel a lump or experience symptoms that might be caused by a soft tissue sarcoma, you should report them immediately to your doctor. Your doctor will attempt to find out what is causing the symptoms by asking you about the history of the symptoms. If your lump is painful, for instance, your doctor will want to know about the pain, including when it started and if there are things that make it worse. The doctor may also ask about possible risk factors, such as your family history.
The doctor will also do a careful physical exam. If you have a lump, your doctor will determine its size and shape and the effect it has had on surrounding areas. Depending on what your lump feels like and where it is, your doctor may order a biopsy to obtain a sample of the tissue in the lump. This will determine if the lump is a soft tissue sarcoma. Once the biopsy is done, your doctor may do one or more of these tests to obtain additional information:
This is a common test to look for possible spread of sarcoma to the lungs.
Computed Tomography Scan (CT Scan)
What Is Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)?
A magnetic resonance (REZ-oh-nans) imaging scan is usually called an MRI. An MRI does not use radiation (X-rays) and is a noninvasive medical test or examination. The MRI machine uses a large magnet and a computer to take pictures of the inside of your body. Each picture or “slice” shows only a few layers of body tissue at a time. The pictures can then be examined on a computer monitor.
Pictures taken this way may help caregivers find and see problems in your body more easily. The scan usually takes between 15 to 90 minutes. Including the scan, the total examination time usually takes between 1.5 to 3 hours.
A substance called gadolinium is injected into a vein to help the physicians see the image more clearly. The gadolinium collects around cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. Sometimes a procedure called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is done during the MRI scan. An MRS is used to diagnose tumors based on their chemical make-up.
How does MRI work?
The MRI machine is a large, cylindrical (tube-shaped) machine that creates a strong magnetic field around the patient. This magnetic field, along with a radiofrequency, alters the hydrogen atoms’ natural alignment in the body.
A magnetic field is created and pulses of radio waves are sent from a scanner. The radio waves knock the nuclei of the atoms in the body out of their normal position; as the nuclei realign back into proper position, they send out radio signals.
These signals are received by a computer that analyzes and converts them into an image of the part of the body being examined. This image appears on a viewing monitor. Some MRI machines look like narrow tunnels, while others are more open.
MRI may be used instead of a CT scan in situations where organs or soft tissue are being studied, because with MRI scanning bones do not obscure the images of organs and soft tissues, as does CT scanning.
Other related procedures that are used to assess the heart may include:
- Resting or exercise electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Signal-averaged electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Holter monitor
- Cardiac catheterization
- Chest X-ray
- Computed tomography (CT scan) of the chest
- Electrophysiological studies
- Myocardial perfusion scans
- Radionuclide angiography
- Ultrafast CT scans
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan
This test uses a very small amount of a radioactive sugar to look for areas of activity in the body that might be caused by a tumor. The results of this test are not detailed like a CT or MRI scan, but newer machines can combine PET and CT scans to give a more detailed picture of activity in the body.
A bone scan is a specialized radiology procedure used to examine the various bones of the skeleton to identify areas of physical and chemical changes in bone. Bone scans are used primarily to detect the spread of metastatic cancer.
These tests can help show if there is a growth, where it is, and sometimes whether it has spread. On occasion, one or more of these tests may be done prior to a biopsy. Your doctor may use the results to determine the cause of the problem, or he or she may order more tests. If your doctor does not order a test, it is OK to ask why it is not necessary.