Soft Tissue Sarcoma Stages: Understanding Your Diagnosis

Learn about the different stages of soft tissue sarcoma, a type of rare cancer.

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When you get a soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis, your medical team will want to find out if the cancer has spread — and if so, how much. Doctors do this using a process called staging. Staging helps doctors know how serious the soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis is and how to best treat it. Here’s more information on soft tissue sarcoma treatment options.

How does staging for a soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis work?

“Soft tissue sarcoma is staged based on tumor size, whether or not it’s spread to lymph nodes, and whether or not it has metastasized to a site different than its site of origin,” says Richard Bakst, MD, a Radiation Oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

The staging system that most doctors use for soft tissue sarcoma is called the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system, which helps doctors learn more details about the patient’s condition. The TNM system is based on four key pieces of information:

  • (T) Tumor: How large is the cancer?
  • (N) Lymph nodes: Has it spread to the lymph nodes?
  • (M) Metastasis: Has it spread to nearby organs?
  • (G) Grade: How much do the sarcoma cells look like cancer cells?

Tumor (T) Stage

“T stage refers to size, and it’s typically broken up into 5 centimeter intervals, and it’s staged T1 to T4,” says Dr. Bakst.

  • T1: 5 cm or less
  • T2: 5 to 10 cm
  • T3: 10 to 15 cm
  • T4: 15 cm or more

Lymph Nodes (N) Stage

“N stage refers to whether or not it’s spread to lymph nodes,” says Dr. Bakst.

  • N0: Hasn’t spread to lymph nodes
  • N1: Has spread to lymph nodes

Metastasis (M) Stage

“[M stage means] either it has metastasized to another site or it hasn’t,” says Dr. Bakst.

  • M0: has not spread to distant sites
  • M1: has spread to distant sites

Grade (G)

“The 4th component is grade, and that is determined by how the pathologist describes the cancer under the microscope,” says Dr. Bakst.

  • G1: cells appear almost normal and aren’t particularly aggressive
  • G2: cells appear moderately abnormal and are semi aggressive
  • G3: cells appear clearly abnormal and are very aggressive

What happens after staging?

“So in general we try to get all patients to surgery to have the mass excised,” says Dr. Bakst. After surgery, doctors will then reassess the size of the tumor, and whether or not it has spread to the lymph nodes. “[This] determines whether or not they need radiation. And there we look at the grade, and whether the surgeon got it all out,” says Dr. Bakst.

“In general, for tumors that are bigger than 5 centimeters and are intermediate to high grade, we tend to give radiation after. We’re looking at those variables from surgery to understand what the next step is,” says Dr. Bakst.

How do doctors determine your prognosis?

Stages are also used to help understand a patient’s survival rate. Doctors often use the five-year survival rate, which is a percentage of patients who live for at least five years after they’ve been diagnosed with cancer. This rate is often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who have had the disease, but they can’t predict every case because every patient’s cancer is different. And of course, many patients live much longer than five years or are cured completely.

The overall survival rate for soft tissue sarcoma depends on the agency and method of classification. Generally, the number is about 60% for all-comers. This number is higher for those whose got a soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis early, before the cancer has spread to other areas.