Risk Factors for Soft Tissue Sarcoma: What Affects Your Odds

Find out whether you could be at risk for this rare cancer.

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Soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer that forms from soft tissues—such as your muscles, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels—which connect and support other tissues in the body.

Soft tissue sarcoma is not common, and in most cases the cause of the cancer is unknown. Even so, there are certain risk factors to be aware of and warning signs of soft tissue sarcoma to watch out for. Here are the factors that could increase your risk:

You’ve already been through cancer treatment. Soft tissue sarcomas may develop in patients who’ve received radiation therapy in the past for other cancers, often in the area of the body getting treated. “So for instance, following breast cancer treatment, where we treat the whole breast after a lumpectomy, women can develop a secondary, radiation-related cancer 7 to 10 years after treatment. This is exceedingly rare, probably occurring in less that 1 percent of patients. However, those secondary cancers may be a soft tissue sarcoma,” says Richard Bakst, MD, a radiation oncologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital.

You were born with a genetic mutation. Family cancer syndromes are disorders caused by gene defects (often inherited from a parent) that are linked to a higher likelihood of getting certain cancers, including soft tissue sarcomas. Some examples include Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, Gardner syndrome, retinoblastoma, Werner syndrome, Gorlin syndrome, and tuberous sclerosis. “Those are genetic syndromes which are relatively uncommon thankfully, however they are typically diagnosed at a young age, and so patients with those genetic syndromes would likely be screened for a number of different cancers, including soft tissue sarcoma,” says Dr. Bakst.

You’ve been exposed to certain chemicals. High exposure to dioxin or herbicides that contain phenoxyacetic acid may be a risk factor for soft tissue sarcoma. Vinyl chloride (a chemical used in making plastics) and arsenic have been linked to liver sarcoma, but have not been proven for soft tissue sarcoma. “Carcinogen exposures have always been hypothesized as a cause, but there’s no clear link,” says Dr. Bakst.

“It’s important to keep in mind that soft tissue sarcomas are relatively rare, and that most things you notice on your body are not soft tissue sarcoma,” says Dr. Bakst. “Just be vigilant of changes in your body, and present to a primary care doctor if you are concerned about anything for further workup.”