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July is Sarcoma Awareness Month

Cancer comes in many forms and negatively affects far too many lives. Sometimes, this all-too-common disease appears in a very rare form. This is the case with sarcoma cancer. While this kind of cancer is considered rare, it is much too familiar to the nearly 17,000 people diagnosed with sarcomas every year as well as the 50,000 individuals living with this disease. Since sarcoma cancer is relatively rare, accounting for only 1% of all adult cancers and around 20% of all childhood cancers, the need for research funding and new sarcoma treatment options is often overlooked. No wonder the disease is still considered to be the “forgotten cancer.”

Thankfully, July is Sarcoma Awareness Month. The goal of this month is to remind everyone about the challenges that sarcoma sufferers face and highlight the urgent need for additional research and new therapies. During Sarcoma Awareness Month, it’s important to take the time to understand the various sarcoma types, symptoms, and treatments, giving some much needed attention to this disease.

What is sarcoma cancer?

Sarcomas are cancers that begin in the bones and the soft tissues throughout the body. These soft tissues are known as connective tissue because they connect, surround, and support the body’s systems. These soft tissues include fat, muscles, cartilage, and nerves. Since bones and soft tissues are found practically everywhere in the body, sarcoma cancer can occur anywhere and at any time. As a result, not all sarcomas are exactly the same and they are typically considered a family of related cancers rather than one single disease.

Common kinds of a rare cancer

While there are many kinds of sarcoma, types are mainly divided into bone sarcomas and soft tissue sarcomas. Then, they are divided even further based on where they are found in the body. According to the Sarcoma Alliance, 60% of sarcomas begin in the arms and legs, while 30% start in the abdomen or torso and 10% appear in the neck or head.

Signs of a growing problem

When it comes to detecting any kind of cancer, the first sign is often a growth. But, that’s not always the case. Unfortunately, sarcoma symptoms don’t always appear—or they’re so insignificant or small they go unnoticed—in the earliest stages of the disease. Over time, symptoms may become more apparent until they’re impossible to ignore. Just as there are two main kinds of sarcomas, each has its own specific sarcoma symptoms.

With soft tissue sarcoma, symptoms are often slow to appear because these tissues are extremely elastic. A growth may not be noticed until the tumor starts pressing on nearby muscles, nerves, and organs. As the sarcoma grows larger, the following symptoms may appear:

  • A small, painless lump under the skin of the arm or leg
  • A lump that becomes painful
  • Uncomfortable swelling
  • Stomach pain
  • Breathing problems

While the most common symptom of bone sarcoma is pain, not all bone sarcomas are painful. As the tumor grows, it presses on healthy bone tissue and leads to the following symptoms:

  • Bone pain and swelling
  • Swollen or stiff joints
  • Fractures from weakened bones
  • Fatigue
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Unexplained fever

If you experience any of these signs or symptoms, make an appointment with your SignatureMD-affiliated doctor right away. These symptoms may be signs of other conditions, but only your doctor can make a proper diagnosis.

Recognize your risk

It isn’t completely clear why people develop sarcoma cancer, but certain factors may increase the risk. Yet, having one or more of these factors doesn’t mean that you’ll develop sarcoma. It just means that you may have an elevated risk. Not surprisingly, the risk factors for soft tissue sarcoma differ from the ones for bone sarcoma.

The risk factors for soft tissue sarcoma include:

  • Genetic syndromes, such as retinoblastoma, neurofibromatosis, tuberous sclerosis, Werner syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and familial adenomatous polyposis
  • Prior radiation treatment for other cancers
  • Immune system abnormalities
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, including herbicides and arsenic

With bone cancer, the most common risk factors are:

  • Age, with most childhood cases occurring between the ages of 10 and 19, and most adult cases appearing in older adults
  • Gender, with cases more common in females
  • Ethnicity may also play a role since the disease is slightly more common in African Americans
  • Genetic conditions like Li-Fraumeni syndrome and retinoblastoma
  • Previous radiation treatment for other cancers
  • A bone disorder called Paget’s disease

Treating and beating sarcoma

Once an oncologist diagnoses the type and stage of sarcoma, your team of doctors determines the most effective sarcoma treatment. These treatments can take the form of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of these options. The precise treatment plan depends on the size, stage, and site of the sarcoma, along with your health and age. Rest assured that sarcomas can be treated and sometimes completely cured.

Throughout Sarcoma Awareness Month, it’s important to spread the word about sarcoma and make others aware that more research, clinical trials, and therapies are needed to truly make sarcoma a forgotten cancer.