What you need to know about sarcoma
A painless bump that appeared on your leg seems to be getting bigger. But it still doesn’t hurt, so you ignore it. That could be a big mistake, according to Juan Pretell, MD, chief of musculoskeletal oncology surgery at the Miami Cancer Institute, part of Baptist Health.
“Most people think that if they develop a ‘bump’ that doesn’t hurt, they’re fine, or because it doesn’t hurt, it’s okay,” says Dr Pretell. This is one of the most common misconceptions he hears from patients with newly diagnosed soft tissue sarcoma.
National Sarcoma Awareness Month is an opportunity to dispel myths and raise awareness about this rare cancer. Each year in the United States, more than 13,000 patients are diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma and another 4,000 are diagnosed with bone sarcoma.
Both children and adults can develop sarcoma, and although there are certain mutations and genetic conditions ― and risk factors such as chemical exposure and previous radiation therapy ― that can predispose some people to the disease, most who develop it do not have any of these known risk factors. The factors.
“Ask the average person on the street what a sarcoma is and most won’t be able to tell you,” says Dr. Pretell. “Although it is rare, it can be very aggressive, so the earlier it is detected, the better the chance of survival.”
There are many subtypes of sarcoma and they can occur anywhere in the body. They often metastasize or spread. Soft tissue sarcomas are most commonly found in the fat, muscle, nerves, and blood vessels of the arms, legs, and abdomen. Bone sarcomas start in the bones and are usually found in the thigh, upper arm, or shin.
A patient with bone sarcoma may experience pain in the tumor area. “It can be associated with swelling and functional limitation,” says Dr. Pretell. Other symptoms of sarcoma include:
- A painless “bump” that appears for no apparent reason
- Any growing lump or mass
- An unexpected fracture that occurs with little or no injury or for a known reason
- Abdominal pain
Sarcoma treatment usually involves surgery. Sometimes chemotherapy is given before and/or after surgery, and the vast majority of patients also receive radiation therapy.
“If you have sarcoma, it’s important to be treated and monitored at a specialized center like the Miami Cancer Institute,” says Dr. Pretell. “We have a multidisciplinary team that includes orthopedic oncology surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, plastic surgeons and rehabilitation experts. Because sarcomas are rare, you want to make sure you are receiving care from an experienced team.
Doctors at the Miami Cancer Institute offer complex limb salvage procedures that allow removal of a tumor while maintaining function. And, as Florida’s only member of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Alliance, the Institute has access to the most innovative clinical trials.
Although sarcoma receives less research funding than many other types of cancer, there are promising diagnostic tools and treatments on the horizon. “Molecular tests that identify specific mutations in sarcoma patients lead to more accurate and earlier diagnoses, while helping to make treatment decisions,” says Dr. Pretell.
In addition, immunotherapies are increasingly used and show benefits in patients with certain types of sarcomas. Immunotherapy drugs help the body’s immune system target and kill cancer cells. Other advances include 3D printing, leading to better implants and prostheses, and navigation systems that are being developed to improve surgical outcomes.
Sarcoma is not curable once it has spread, which is why Dr. Pretell stresses the importance of having any lumps or masses evaluated. “It’s better to find out that you’re okay than to find out that your cancer has spread,” he says.