Soft tissue sarcoma types
There are many types of soft tissue sarcoma. They usually grow and develop differently from each other. Find out more about the different types.
On this page
- About different types of soft tissue sarcoma
- Peripheral nerve sarcoma
- Fibroblastic sarcoma
- Synovial tumours
- Gastrointestinal stromal tumours (GISTs)
- Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS)
- Soft tissue Ewing sarcoma
- Rarer types of soft tissue sarcoma
- Soft tissue sarcomas in children
- How we can help
There are many types of soft tissue sarcoma. They usually grow and develop differently from each other. We describe the most common types below. Your doctor or specialist nurse can tell you more about the type of soft tissue sarcoma you have.
Each type of sarcoma is named after the type of cell it started from. It is not named after the part of the body where it started to grow.
Sarcomas that start in the body’s fat cells are called liposarcomas. They can grow anywhere in the body. The most common places are the thigh and the area in the back of the tummy, called the retroperitoneum.
Liposarcomas are more commonly diagnosed in people aged 50 to 65. Some grow very slowly, taking many years to develop. Others grow more quickly.
Smooth muscle makes up the walls of internal organs such as the womb (uterus), stomach, intestines and blood vessels. The muscle makes these organs contract. This happens without our control, so smooth muscle is also called involuntary muscle.
Sarcomas that develop in smooth muscle are called leiomyosarcomas (LMS). They are one of the more common types of sarcoma.
Leiomyosarcomas can develop anywhere in the body. They are most common in the tummy, retroperitoneum and pelvic area. Sometimes they are found in the deep, soft tissues of the arms or legs.
Leiomyosarcomas usually develop in adults, particularly older people. They are most commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 50.
Sarcomas that develop in skeletal muscles are called rhabdomyosarcomas (RMS). Skeletal muscles are the active muscles in our arms and legs, and other parts of the body.
We control these muscles, so they are also called voluntary muscles. Sometimes they are called striated muscles, because the cells look stripy under a microscope.
Skeletal muscle sarcomas are most common in the head and neck. But they can also develop in organs such as the bladder, the vagina and the arms or legs.
Rhabdomyosarcomas are most commonly diagnosed in children.
The body’s nervous system is divided into two parts:
- the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord
- the peripheral nervous system, which is made up of the nerves that carry messages between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body.
Sarcomas of the peripheral nerves develop in the cells that cover the nerves. They are called malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumours (MPNST). They can develop anywhere in the body.
There are different types of MPNST. They are most commonly diagnosed in people aged 30 to 50, who have a rare genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis (von Recklinghausen’s disease).
Fibrous tissues join together the inner structures of the body. For example, they join muscles to bones. This tissue is made up of cells called fibrocytes. A sarcoma of the fibrous tissue is called a fibroblastic sarcoma.
There are different types of fibroblastic sarcoma.
Undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma
Soft tissue sarcomas can usually be accurately diagnosed as a certain type. This is based on type of cell the sarcoma starts from. But sometimes it is not clear which cell the sarcoma starts from.
This type of sarcoma is known as undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma (UPS). It used to be called a malignant fibrous histiocytoma (MFH).
Undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcomas are more commonly in people aged 60 to 70. They can affect any part of the body, but most commonly develop in the legs and arms.
This is a common type of soft tissue sarcoma. It usually develops in the arms, legs and central part of the body (the trunk) in older people.
This is a rare type of fibrous tissue sarcoma. It most commonly develops in the arms, legs, central part of the body (trunk) and head and neck. But it can also develop deeper in the body. It can develop at any age, but it is more commonly diagnosed in middle-aged and older adults.
Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP)
These are rare, slow-growing tumours. They often start in the skin and are usually diagnosed in people aged 20 to 30.
These tumours are sometimes known as Desmoid tumours. They are classified as benign tumours, not cancer. Desmoid tumours do not usually spread to other parts of the body. But they can spread into nearby tissues and cause damage. This means they are usually treated in a similar way to cancerous sarcomas.
Sarcomas that start from the cells that make up the walls of blood or lymph vessels are called angiosarcomas. There are two types:
- haemangiosarcomas develop from blood vessels
- lymphangiosarcomas develop from lymph vessels.
Angiosarcomas sometimes start in a part of the body that has been treated with radiotherapy many years before.
These tumours can develop anywhere in the body, but are often found close to joints and tendons. They are common around the knee, hip and ankle. They are usually diagnosed in people aged 15 to 35, but can develop in people of any age.
These are the most common type of soft tissue sarcoma. They develop in nerve cells in the walls of the digestive system. The digestive system is often called the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This type of tumour may also be called GI stromal sarcoma.
A GIST behaves differently from other types of sarcoma and is treated very differently.
Although Kaposi’s sarcoma is a type of sarcoma, it develops differently from other sarcomas. It starts from cells in the skin. Coloured patches or lumps can develop in the skin, mouth, lymph nodes or internal organs such as the lungs, liver or spleen.
KS can affect people with a weakened immune system. This includes people with HIV and Aids.
Other types of KS can affect people of Jewish, Italian and West African origin.
Kaposi’s sarcoma is treated differently from other types of soft tissue sarcoma.
Ewing sarcoma is a rare type of cancer that usually develops in the bones. Sometimes Ewing sarcoma starts in the soft tissues of the body. This is called extraosseous (outside the bone) Ewing sarcoma, or soft tissue Ewing sarcoma. It is most commonly diagnosed in teenagers.
Soft tissue Ewing sarcoma behaves differently to other types of soft tissue sarcoma. It is treated in the same way as a Ewing sarcoma that starts in the bone.
There are other much rarer types of sarcoma that we do not explain here. These include:
- inflammatory myofibroblastic tumours (IMT)
- alveolar soft part sarcoma
- epithelioid sarcoma
- clear cell sarcoma
- desmoplastic small round cell tumours
- extraskeletal myxoid chondrosarcoma
- solitary fibrous tumours.
It can be difficult to get information about the rarer types of sarcoma. Your doctor and specialist nurse can give you more information and answer any questions you have. You can also speak to the nurses on the Macmillan Support Line.
Soft tissue sarcomas can develop in children, particularly some types of rhabdomyosarcoma. Their symptoms and the treatment they are given may be different from an adult with the same sarcoma. You can read more about children's cancers and how they are treated on this link.
You can read more information about children's cancers at Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group.