What is a Sarcoma?

Content provided by Rebecca Bergeron – Director, Clinical Services at Provision CARES Proton Therapy – Knoxville.


What are sarcomas and why should we be concerned about them?

A few years ago, my son asked me “how do you keep up with all the medical names in your job and what they mean?”  Well, in the medical field, and especially in oncology, we learn the origin and meaning of the different parts of diseases, drugs, and procedures to more easily identify and recall them.

So, let’s break down sarcoma.  “Sarc” comes from the Ancient Greek term “sarx”, meaning flesh, and “oma” means “process” or a tumor.  Therefore, a sarcoma is a fleshy tumor.  Sarcomas arise from soft tissues, and the type and location of tissue contributes to a tumor’s identification- bone (osteo), cartilage (chondro), fat (lipo), skeletal muscle (rhabdomyo, fibro), smooth muscle (leiomyo), vascular (angio), nervous system (neuro) hematopoietic (blood cell forming) tissue.

Why are we concerned about sarcomas?  Although these tumors are rare, the word “sarc” means the tumor is malignant and can spread to other parts of the body.  If the majority of sarcomas are controlled at their primary site of origin, most patients survive five years or longer.  Proton therapy is a treatment option for many adults and children with sarcomas and is a preferred treatment for tumors that present in difficult sites such as the base of skull or spine.[1]  Pencil beam scanning with protons offers even more precision with reduction in treatment related side effects and risk for secondary cancer.[2] [3]

Sarcomas most commonly start in the arms, legs, chest, and abdomen.[4]  A sarcoma often appears as a painless lump under the skin of an extremity. Sarcomas that begin in the abdomen or chest may not cause signs or symptoms until they grow large enough to put pressure on nearby organs, nerves, muscles, or blood vessels.

[1] Shimizu, H., Matsumoto, Y. & Tominaga, T. Neurosurg Rev (2010) 33: 205. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10143-009-0234-0

[2] Harald Paganetti et al 2012 Phys. Med. Biol. 57 6047

[3] Foote RL, Stafford SL, Petersen IA, et al. The clinical case for proton beam therapy. Radiation Oncology (London, England). 2012;7:174. doi:10.1186/1748-717X-7-174.

[4] (National Cancer Institute, 2018)