Sarcoma is a type of cancer that affects the body's connective tissue (bones, muscles, fat, blood vessels, nerves, and cartilage).

What Is Sarcoma?

Sarcoma is a type of cancer that affects the body's connective tissue, types of tissue that provide structural support to the various organs of the body. Connective tissue all comes from the same type of embryonic tissue, called mesoderm. Examples of connective tissue include the bones, muscles, fat, blood vessels, nerves, and cartilage.

The leg and ankle of a patient with a lesion caused by Kaposi's sarcoma. CDC.

The leg and ankle of a patient with a lesion caused by Kaposi's sarcoma. CDC.

What Are the Various Types of Sarcoma?

The general term sarcoma includes many specific types of cancer that can affect a wide variety of tissues and areas of the body. About 60 percent of soft-tissue sarcomas begin in an arm or leg, with 30 percent starting in the torso. The remaining 10 percent occur in the head or neck. The following are examples:

Who Gets Sarcoma?

In the United States, the American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 12,310 people will be diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma in 2016; 6,980 men and 5,330 women. About 4,990 people die of the disease yearly. In adults, only 1 percent of all cancers are sarcomas, whereas in children, 15 percent of all cancers are sarcomas.

People have a higher risk of developing sarcoma if they have been exposed to radiation (including the treatment of other forms of cancer), if they are subject to toxic exposures (e.g., during the production of various forms of plastics or exposure to wood preservatives), if there is a strong family history of these types of cancers, or if they have other conditions that seem to predispose to sarcoma, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, or von Recklinghausen's disease (neurofibromatosis). People with AIDS * have an increased risk of a rare cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma.

What Are the Symptoms of Sarcoma?

Sarcoma often has no recognizable symptoms until a tumor has grown fairly large. Sometimes an individual notices an unusual lump or bump. Other times, the tumor eventually expands enough to press on nerves or muscles, causing numbness, pain, tingling, soreness, or problems with normal functioning. In the case of bone cancer (osteosarcoma), expansion of the tumor within the bone can cause the bone to weaken and fracture (referred to as a pathologic fracture).

How Is Sarcoma Diagnosed?

Sarcoma may be suspected based on the presence of characteristic symptoms, as well as on knowledge of the individual's personal or family history. A physical examination may reveal the presence of a tumor within areas of soft tissue. Tests such as an x-ray, ultrasound * , computed tomography * (CT scan), or MRI * may be performed in an effort to demonstrate the presence of a tumor. A biopsy may be performed in order to remove a small sample of a tumor, either with a very thin needle (fine needle aspiration) or a hollow needle (core biopsy), through a tiny incision during laparoscopic * surgery, or through a classical incision during an open operation. Examination of this tissue under a microscope allows identification of the specific type of cancer cell.

How Is Sarcoma Treated?

Sarcoma is treated in a number of different ways. Surgery may be used to remove tumors. If at all possible, doctors avoid the amputation of limbs, although it may be necessary in certain advanced cases. Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs that are toxic to the cancer cells (but also often to normal cells as well). Radiation therapy uses x-rays to shrink tumors.

See also Cancer: Overview


Books and Articles

Sundquist, Josh. We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly a True Story. New York: Little, Brown, 2014.


The Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative. “What is Sarcoma?” (accessed July 6, 2016).

National Cancer Institute. “Soft Tissue Sarcoma—Patient Version.” (accessed July 6, 2016).

Sarcoma Alliance. “What Is Sarcoma?” (accessed July 6, 2016).


American Cancer Society. PO Box 22478, Oklahoma City, OΚ 73123. Toll-free: 866-227-2345. Website: (accessed July 6, 2016).

National Cancer Institute. BG 9606 MSC 9760, 9609 MedicalCenter Dr., Bethesda, MD 20892-9760. Toll-free: 800-4-CANCER. Website: (accessed July 6, 2016).

Sarcoma Foundation of America. 9899 Main St., Suite 204, Damascus, MD 20872. Telephone: 301-253-8687. Website: (accessed July 6, 2016).

* AIDS or acquired immunodeficiency (ih-myoo-no-dih-FIH-shensee) syndrome, is an infection that severely weakens the immune system. It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

* ultrasound, also called a sonogram, is a diagnostic test in which sound waves passing through the body create images on a computer screen.

* computed tomography (kom-PYOO-ted toe-MAH-gruhfee), or CT, is a technique in which a machine takes many x-rays of the body to create a three-dimensional picture. Formerly called computerized axial tomography (CAT).

* MRI, which is short for magnetic resonance imaging, produces computerized images of internal body tissues based on the magnetic properties of atoms within the body.

* laparoscopy (lap-uh-ROS-kuhpee) is a type of surgery in which a small fiberoptic instrument is inserted through a very small incision to examine the inside of the abdomen or remove small amounts of tissue. Also called minimally invasive surgery.

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.