Sarcomas

A sarcoma is a cancer of the connective tissue, such as nerves, muscles, fat, tendons and bones. Sarcomas can arise anywhere in the body and are frequently hidden deep in the limbs. They are divided into two main types: soft tissue and bone.

Sarcomas are very rare and are often misdiagnosed, so it’s important to go to a cancer center experienced in diagnosing and treating it.

The Sarcoma Program at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center combines the expertise of different doctors, nurses and other health care professionals. Our interdisciplinary team approach means that experts in treatment, nutrition, support and other areas will assist you in developing a total body approach for your cancer treatment.

We provide expert evaluation, diagnosis and treatment for all types of tumors that affect the bones and soft tissues, including malignant (cancerous) tumors, benign (non-cancerous) tumors and metastatic disease (cancer that has spread to other tissues).

With over 30 years of combined experience in every subspecialty of sarcoma, we offer one of the only comprehensive sarcoma programs in the region.

What Causes Sarcoma?

Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes sarcomas. Some studies suggest that workers who are exposed to phenoxyacetic acid in herbicides and chlorophenols in wood preservatives may have an increased risk of developing soft tissue sarcomas.

An unusual percentage of patients with a rare blood vessel tumor of the liver called angiosarcoma have been exposed to vinyl chloride in their work. This substance is used in the manufacture of certain plastics.

Genetics

Recent studies have focused on genetic mutations (changes in the DNA) that may lead to the development of sarcomas. Scientists have found a small number of families in which more than one member of the family has developed sarcoma. In these families, it is possible that sarcoma is related to a rare inherited genetic mutation.

Penn's Cancer Risk Evaluation Program provides education about the benefits, limitations, and potential drawbacks of genetic testing. Certain inherited diseases are associated with an increased risk of developing bone and soft tissue sarcomas. Those at increased risk include:

  • Individuals with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which is associated with alterations in the p53 gene.
  • Individuals with von Recklinghausen's disease, also called neurofibromatosis, and associated with alterations in the NF1 gene.
  • Individuals with Paget's disease, a non-cancerous condition characterized by abnormal development of new bone cells.
  • Individuals with hereditary retinoblastoma, which is an uncommon cancer of the eye, that typically develops in childhood.

Your doctor or nurse may ask you if you are interested in participating in current genetic research focused on improving treatment, finding the cause and hopefully preventing sarcomas. We encourage you to ask questions, so you'll have the information you need to make the decision that's best for you.

Learn more about the sarcomas we treat and patient and family support services offered.