Signs of Soft Tissue Sarcoma You Should Never Ignore

Is it just a bruise, or could it be a kind of cancer called soft tissue sarcoma?

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

Soft tissue sarcoma is not common, but anyone can get it—and it can disguise itself as other not-so-serious health conditions. Knowing the risk factors for soft tissue sarcoma as well as the most common red-flag symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma can help you find it early—and fight it.  

Warning Signs of Soft Tissue Sarcoma

If someone notices a lump on their leg or hip, their first thought isn’t usually cancer. “People think that it may be a bruise, or trauma related. Some people think it may be an infection, other people may think it’s a cyst, or fatty growth called a lipoma,” says Richard Bakst, MD, a radiation oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

More than half of soft tissue sarcomas develop in the arm or the leg, and about 20% of sarcomas develop in a region of the abdomen called the retroperitoneum. Soft tissue sarcoma often presents as a mass (it can be as large as golf ball-sized; approximately 5 cm), and more often than not, is painless.

“It’s not that pain alerts them to that part of the body. If [they] notice something either in the mirror or the shower, and they follow that over time and notice that it’s [getting] slightly bigger, that usually prompts a doctor’s visit,” says Dr. Bakst.

If the lump does cause pain, it’s likely because it’s begun to press on nearby organs, like the stomach or colon. “Patients with retroperitoneal sarcomas may have different symptoms, such as bloating, abdominal pain, changes in their bowl patterns, and changes in their urinary patterns,” says Dr. Bakst. “Changes in the body are really important to pay attention to.”

Known Risk Factors for Soft Tissue Sarcoma

Family cancer syndromes are disorders caused by gene defects (often inherited from a parent) that are linked to a high risk of getting certain cancers, including soft tissue sarcomas. Exposure to radiation or certain chemicals, or lymph system conditions, are also possible risk factors for soft tissue sarcoma.

For people who don’t have a strong family history of sarcomas, there are no routine screening tests or exams that are recommended for early detection of soft tissue sarcomas. The best way to detect these cancers is keep an eye out for changes, like unexplained lumps, growths or symptoms, and alert your doctor ASAP if you notice anything unusual.

“If there’s any concern about growth or new things that develop, presenting it to the primary care physician at that time is always wise, so that a diagnosis could be established for whatever the lump to the bump may be … sooner, rather than later,” says Dr. Bakst.