Is Soft Tissue Sarcoma Terminal?

Medically Reviewed on 4/15/2022
Is soft tissue sarcoma terminal?
Soft tissue sarcomas can be fatal; however, with timely diagnosis and treatment, they can be cured and treated.

The life expectance of a person with soft tissue sarcoma is determined by factors, such as:

  • Tumor type
  • Size
  • Spread of the tumor to other sites
  • Tumor cell growth rate
  • Location when first diagnosed

According to the National Cancer Institute and the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results database, people with soft tissue sarcoma had a five-year survival rate of 65 percent. However, this varies depending on where the cancer was discovered.

  • Localized sarcoma: 81 percent.
  • Regional: 56 percent.
  • Distant: 15 percent.

Five-year survival rate of soft tissue sarcoma

Soft tissue sarcoma is more likely to be cured surgically if it is discovered early and is still confined.

  • Localized sarcomas account for approximately 60 percent of all sarcomas. Localized sarcoma has an 81 percent five-year survival rate.
  • Approximately 19 percent of sarcomas are reported to be in a locally advanced stage. Locally advanced sarcoma has a five-year survival rate of about 56 percent.
  • About 15 percent of sarcomas are found to be metastatic. Metastatic sarcoma has a five-year survival rate of about 15 percent.

Again, these figures do not consider a person's particular medical history, such as age and overall health.

  • They do not consider how well cancer may respond to treatment or which new medicines are now available to combat it.
  • Some soft tissue sarcomas may be treated with newer, more focused treatments.
  • Some stage IV sarcomas may be treated if the initial tumor and any sites where the malignancy has spread are surgically removed.
  • This is most likely to be successful if cancer has only progressed to the lungs.

However, research on soft tissue sarcoma shows that:

  • Soft tissue sarcomas can be fatal, with only 50 to 60 percent of people alive five years after being identified or treated.
  • The most prevalent cause of mortality in soft tissue sarcoma patients is metastasis (or spread) to the lungs.
  • These life-threatening lung metastases arise in 80 percent of affected patients between two and three years following initial diagnosis.


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What exactly is soft tissue sarcoma?

Soft tissue sarcoma is an uncommon type of cancer that arises in the body's soft tissues, such as:

  • Muscles
  • Tendons (band of fibrous tissue that connects muscle to bone)
  • Fat
  • Lymph
  • Blood vessels
  • Nerves

Soft tissue sarcomas can develop anywhere in the body; however, they are most commonly present in the following areas:

  • Thigh
  • Buttocks
  • Calf
  • Arm
  • Abdomen

These tumors might be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, there are about 60 different kinds of soft tissue sarcoma, with the most prevalent being:

  • Rhabdomyosarcoma, mostly seen in children
  • Synovial sarcoma, mostly seen in teenagers and young adults

How is soft tissue sarcoma classified?

Sarcomas are classified according to their parent tissue, for example, osteosarcoma is a bone tumor, fibrosarcoma is a fibrous tissue tumor, hemangiosarcoma is a blood vessel wall tumor and synovial cell sarcoma is a joint tissue tumor.

Oncologists classify many sarcomas, particularly those that grow just beneath the skin (subcutaneous tumors) as a single large group called soft tissue sarcomas. Despite having subtly different parent tissues, they behave in a similar manner concerning growth, spread, and response to treatment.

4 signs and symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma

  1. A lump or mass:
    • The most typical sign of soft tissue sarcoma.
    • The lump occurs in the location where the tumor is growing, and it may cause pain if it presses on a nerve or muscle.
    • Consult the doctor even if the lump is not painful and if it continues to grow.
    • Sarcomas that develop in tissue near the skin's surface may move easily when touched, whereas those that develop deeper beneath the skin may be more cemented in place. They are usually bigger than a golf ball, which is about 4 cm across.
    • The presence or absence of discomfort in the tumor is generally not regarded as a crucial element in identifying a sarcoma.
  2. Swelling: Soft tissue sarcoma may cause swelling when they press on lymph vessels.
  3. Limited motion: Limited mobility as a result of a tumor that inhibits movement (such as those found in the hips, knees, shoulders, or hands).
  4. Skin lesions: Skin lesions, such as ulcerations, can develop when a sarcoma tumor breaks through the skin.

Sarcoma tumors can form practically anywhere in the body and can damage a wide range of organs.

  • Sarcomas in the abdomen can induce abdominal discomfort, vomiting, or constipation. Sarcomas in the uterus can cause vaginal bleeding and pelvic or lower abdominal pain.
  • Patients may feel full after eating small meals if they have gastrointestinal stromal tumors, as well as blood in vomit and dark stools.
  • Sarcomas that originate in the lungs or heart can cause symptoms, such as chest discomfort and difficulty breathing.

See a doctor immediately if the following signs are present:

  • A new lump or one that is growing
  • Worsening abdominal pain
  • Black, tarry, or bloody stools
  • Bloody vomit

5 causes and risk factors for soft tissue sarcoma

While there are no known causes of the disease, certain variables, such as radiation therapy, diseases or conditions that impair the immune system, genetic anomalies, and exposure to carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals, can increase the risk.

  1. Previous radiation therapy: People who had radiation therapy for a previous malignancy more than five years ago have a slightly increased chance of developing sarcoma in the area where the radiation was aimed.
  2. Genetics:
    • Sarcoma is more common in those who have certain hereditary disorders.
    • Examples include neurofibromatosis type I or von Recklinghausen’s disease, familial adenomatous polyposis, or Gardner syndrome.
  3. Immune system abnormalities: People who have immune system issues are more likely to get cancer, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or autoimmune disorders l(lupus or psoriasis).
  4. Lymphedema:
    • Swelling of an arm, leg, or other portion of the body may occur as a side effect of surgery or radiation therapy for other reasons. This is called lymphedema.
    • Lymphedema, for example, can occur after breast surgery when lymph nodes in the armpit are removed.
    • Lymphedema can be inherited. Sarcomas, such as angiosarcoma, can develop in regions where lymphedema has already been established.
  5. Chemicals:
    • Workplace exposure to vinyl chloride monomer, which is used in the production of several types of plastics, as well as Agent Orange or dioxin, may raise the risk of sarcoma.
    • Most sarcomas, however, are not known to be linked to specific environmental dangers.

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What are the common treatment options for soft tissue sarcoma?

Soft tissue sarcoma is a dangerous disease; however, it is curable and treatable.

Surgery is usually used to treat soft tissue sarcomas, and it is often combined with radiation. Chemotherapy may be prescribed by doctors in various circumstances depending on the patient and disease conditions.

Stage I

  • The tumor is low-grade and might be of any size at this stage. It can manifest itself in the arms or legs.
  • At this point, the treatment usually consists of surgery to remove the tumor and some normal tissue surrounding it. 
  • In some circumstances, radiation therapy should be used after surgery to reduce the odds of recurrence.
  • Furthermore, removing a tumor from the head, neck or abdomen may be more challenging.
  • In such cases, chemotherapy or radiation therapy might be delivered before surgery to reduce the size of the tumor.

Stage II and III

  • Most tumors at this stage are high-grade and tend to develop and spread rapidly.
  • Some stage III tumors might spread to the neighboring lymph nodes as well.
  • In these stages, the rate of local recurrence is high, which means that the tumors resurface on the spot from where they were removed.
  • In these stages, surgery is the primary treatment option, which may include lymph node removal if cancer has spread.
  • Radiation therapy can be used following surgery to lessen the likelihood of recurrence.
  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can be used to decrease the tumor size before surgery.
  • In some circumstances, where the disease has gone further, amputation of a limb may be required to remove the tumor.
  • If the patient's health, location, and size of the tumor do not allow surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be employed as treatment options.

Stage IV

  • This occurs when tumors spread to other parts of the body and are rarely treatable.
  • However, in some cases, the initial tumor and all areas to which it has progressed can be surgically removed.
  • Chemotherapy or radiation therapy can be used to relieve symptoms in some cases.
  • Targeted medication therapy could be used to treat certain soft tissue sarcomas.

Recurrent sarcoma

  • This occurs when the tumor recurs after treatment. Recurrence can be local (in the same location where the tumor first appeared) or distant (when the tumor spreads to other organs or tissues).
  • While surgery followed by radiation therapy can be beneficial in the first situation, chemotherapy or targeted medication therapy is advised in the second.

A soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis may cause certain life changes. Surgery and other forms of treatment may alter the perception of oneself and their body. Some can have an impact on sexual life and the ability to bear children.

Cancer can negatively impact mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Each person is unique, yet many people struggle with feelings of dread, anger, uncertainty, and tension. These emotions can have an impact on loved ones as well.

If a person has trouble dealing with their emotions, they must talk to their doctors, counselors, or friends. Try to eat a nutritious diet and get as much rest as possible while undergoing treatment.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/15/2022
Image Source: iStock Image

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Mayo Clinic. Soft tissue sarcoma.