When you mention the word “cancer,” most people think of more common cancers like breast, lung and prostate cancer. However, July is designated as Sarcoma Awareness Month. It’s an opportunity to help raise awareness about a disease that’s often considered the “forgotten cancer.”
Sarcoma is a cancer of the body’s connective tissues. It begins in bone or soft tissues like fat, cartilage or muscle, and can affect both children and adults. Sarcoma Awareness Month raises awareness of a disease that’s relatively rare. This helps advocacy groups, who are often hindered by the fact that many people don’t even know this type of cancer exists. The public’s lack of awareness and understanding of sarcoma makes it much more challenging to secure funding for research and treatment development.
In this article, we’ll help you develop a better understanding of what sarcoma is, why we have Sarcoma Awareness Month, how you can help the cause, and how proton therapy can help treat sarcoma patients.
What is Sarcoma?
Sarcoma is a broad term for a cancer formed in connective tissues – the cells that hold the body together. It can begin in a variety of cell types, including bone, fat, muscle, cartilage, tendons, blood vessels or other supportive tissue.
Sarcomas are frequently found in a person’s arms or legs, since this is where most of our body’s connective tissue lives. However, since sarcomas can form anywhere in the body, there are hundreds of different subtypes of the disease.
These are broken up into two main categories:
As their name would suggest, soft tissue sarcomas start in soft tissues like muscle, fat, nerves and tendons. Specific types of soft tissue sarcoma include rhabdomyosarcoma, vascular tumors and Kaposi sarcoma.
Non-soft tissue sarcomas form in the bone. The most common bone cancer is osteosarcoma, which usually occurs in the large bones of the arm or leg. Other types include Ewing sarcoma, malignant fibrous histiocytoma and chondrosarcoma.
Signs of Sarcoma
Symptoms of sarcoma do not always appear in the early stages of the cancer. However, signs of soft tissue sarcoma can include a lump or swelling, often appearing as a painless lump under the skin of your arm or leg. As the sarcoma gets bigger, it may begin to press on nearby organs, nerves or muscles, which can result in pain or trouble breathing.
Pain is the most common symptom of bone cancer, but not all bone cancers cause pain. Other symptoms include a lump that may feel soft and warm, an unexplained fever, or a bone that breaks for seemingly no reason.
If your doctor suspects you may have sarcoma, they will most likely perform a physical examination or imaging tests (x-ray, CT scan, ultrasound, MRI or PET) to help diagnose it. They may also choose to perform a biopsy and/or blood tests to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the cancer.
Sarcoma Treatment Options
Because there are so many different types and stages of sarcoma, there are many different treatment options. The type, size, location and stage of the cancer all factor into the treatment plan, as do the patient’s age and overall health.
Standard sarcoma treatment plans include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, cryosurgery, targeted therapy, or a combination of these. It’s important to be your own health advocate by understanding all of your treatment options, and the possible side effects of each.
Treating sarcoma with proton therapy
Since radiation therapy is often part of the treatment plan for sarcoma patients, it’s important to understand the different types of radiation, and the possible side effects of each. Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation therapy that reduces your risk of treatment-related side effects compared to traditional x-ray radiation.
Traditional radiation therapy uses x-rays (or photons). Because of the physical nature of photons, much of the healthy tissue and nearby organs that surround the tumor are exposed to unnecessary radiation. On the other hand, proton therapy uses relatively heavy particles (protons) that can be precisely controlled to release most of their energy at the tumor site. This avoids unnecessary radiation to the surrounding heathy tissue and vital organs. As a result, the patient’s risk of short-term and long-term side effects is significantly reduced.
Why do we have Sarcoma Awareness Month?
Sarcoma is a very rare cancer in adults, accounting for just 1% of all adult cancers. While it is slightly more common for children (about 20% of pediatric cancers), there is still a relatively small number of people diagnosed with sarcoma each year, compared to some of the more prevalent cancers.
Because of its scarcity, sarcoma is often referred to as the “forgotten cancer.” This can make it difficult for advocacy groups to raise money for research and treatment development, since many people aren’t even aware of sarcoma’s existence.
Throughout the month of July, the sarcoma community bands together to help advocate for the needs of sarcoma patients, survivors and their families. Through social media, educational conferences and fundraisers, Sarcoma Awareness Month helps highlight the need for more research and better treatments.
How you can get involved in Sarcoma Awareness Month
There are plenty of ways you can help contribute to the cause. Sharing photos, videos and infographics on social media is a great start. The Sarcoma Foundation of America (SFA) has even created shareable graphics to help make it even easier for you.
You can also get involved by contacting your congressional leaders or local media. Tag them in your social posts using the hashtag #SarcomaAwareness.
The annual Race to Cure Sarcoma is a fundraiser spearheaded by the SFA. There are regional races scheduled in several cities across the country every year.