What is soft tissue sarcoma?

This section is for teenagers and young adults. It’s about a type of cancer called soft tissue sarcomas. We also have more general information about soft tissue sarcomas written for all age groups.

The soft tissues

The soft tissues of the body connect, surround and support other body tissue and organs. Soft tissue includes muscle, cartilage, fat, fibrous tissue, nerves and blood vessels.

Types of soft tissue sarcoma

Soft tissue sarcomas are cancers that develop from cells in the soft, supporting tissues of the body.

There are many different types, but the ones that are more likely to affect teenagers are listed below.

Rhabdomyosarcoma

These sarcomas develop from muscle and the surrounding tissue. There are two main types that affect younger people:

  • Alveolar rhabdomyosarcomas – these are more common in teenagers and young adults. They can happen in any part of the body. But they are usually in an arm or leg (limb), or in the muscles of the chest or tummy (abdomen).
  • Embryonal rhabdomyosarcomas – these are more common in children and can start in different areas. For example, they may start around the eye, or in the head and neck, bladder, womb or vagina.

We have more information about rhabdomyosarcoma that is written for people of all ages.

Synovial sarcoma

This type of sarcoma usually happens in the tissue around the joints, like the elbow, knee or ankle. It can also happen in other parts of your body, but that is less common. They usually appear as hard lumps. This type of sarcoma might not be obvious straight away. This is because the lump grows slowly, and is not usually sore.

Soft tissue Ewing’s sarcoma

Soft tissue Ewing's sarcoma is treated in the same way as Ewing’s sarcoma in a bone. You can read more about this in our bone cancer section.

Fibrosarcoma

This type of sarcoma happens in the fibrous tissue in the body. Fibrous tissue joins the structures inside your body together. For example, it joins the muscles to the bones. Fibrosarcoma is most common in the arms, legs, chest or tummy, but it can also happen in other parts of the body.

Doctors can tell the type of soft tissue sarcoma by removing a sample of tissue and examining it under a microscope. This is called a biopsy.

Other types

If you have a different type of sarcoma and want to know more, please contact us.

Sarcomas can also develop in the bones. There are different types of bone sarcoma. You can find out more in our bone cancer section.

Watch: Coping with bone cancer as a young adult | Shelbee's story

Watch: Coping with bone cancer as a young adult | Shelbee's story

Causes of soft tissue sarcomas

We do not know what causes sarcomas in teenagers and young adults. Remember, nothing you have done has caused the cancer. People often think a knock or injury might have caused a sarcoma, but there is no evidence for this.

Some rare conditions that run in families (known as genetic conditions) can increase the chance of getting a soft tissue sarcoma. You might know if anyone in your family has had one of these conditions. We have more information about genetic conditions that has been written for people of all ages.

Having radiotherapy as a child for another type of cancer may increase your risk of developing a sarcoma later. This would be from your teens onwards.

Signs and symptoms of soft tissue sarcomas

The symptoms of a sarcoma depend on where it is. It can be in the:

  • arm or leg – symptoms include a lump or swelling, which is usually painless, but not always
  • tummy – symptoms include a painful, swollen tummy, and problems going to the toilet to poo (constipation)
  • bladder – symptoms include pain in the lower tummy, finding it difficult to pee (pass urine), and having blood in your pee
  • chest – symptoms include breathlessness, a cough and pain in your chest
  • head or neck – symptoms include a lump, a blockage and discharge from the nose or throat, or occasionally your eye may swell and stick out a bit.

You may also have other symptoms, such as:

  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss.

You should see your GP if you have any of these symptoms, or are worried you may have a sarcoma. They will examine you, and refer you to a hospital if they think you need to see a specialist doctor.

Remember, most people with these symptoms do not have a sarcoma.

Back to Sarcoma

Having tests for sarcomas

You might have some tests when you visit your GP or hospital, these will help diagnose a soft tissue sarcoma.

Life after treatment

The long-term effects of surgery depend on the part of your body affected and the operation you have had.

Treatment for sarcomas

The main treatments for soft tissue sarcomas are surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.