What is a sarcoma?

A sarcoma is a cancer (malignant tumour) arising from bone, cartilage, or soft tissues such as fat, muscle, connective tissue or blood vessels. Sarcomas are rare cancers and occur in approximately 1% of the Australian population.

Sarcomas are often diagnosed late as they are very uncommon and there are many benign diseases that may have similar symptoms. A multidisciplinary team needs to manage a sarcoma because even a biopsy need to be handled in specific ways. A biopsy should be done after consultation with a sarcoma surgeon if a sarcoma is suspected.

How is a diagnosis made?

To accurately diagnose a sarcoma, a sample (biopsy) is required and tissue needs to be taken, both fresh and fixed in formalin, for microscopic analysis. The first question for the pathologist is whether a sarcoma is present and if so, what type. There are many different types of sarcoma for which different kinds of treatment may be offered. Some examples include: osteosarcoma (bone), chondrosarcoma (cartilage), liposarcoma (fat), fibrosarcoma (connective tissue), angiosarcoma (blood vessels), leiomyosarcoma or rhabdomyosarcoma (smooth muscle or skeletal muscle).

In some tumours it is not possible to tell which tissue is involved. Diagnosis requires the use of special stains (immunohistochemical stains) that show some of the characteristic changes of these tissue types at the chemical level. Other tests that can be helpful include electron microscopy and genetic analysis, looking for specific genetic mutations that occur in some types of sarcoma.

How are sarcomas treated?

Which treatment a person is given depends on the size, location, grade and subtype of the sarcoma. The size influences the risk of tumour spread and the chance that the surgeon will be able to remove the tumour completely. The location determines which other structures are close to the tumour and may limit the ability to completely remove the tumour (e.g. blood vessels and nerves). It is also is important in determining how to best reconstruct the area after surgery and which other procedures may be required to promote best function. The grade of the tumour is important in determining the risk of tumour recurrence.

Generally, surgery is the treatment of choice if possible and this may be followed by radiation in some cases and chemotherapy. For some sarcomas, to shrink the tumour, chemotherapy or radiotherapy is used as the first treatment; this has the benefit of improving the chances of removing a tumour surgically, that may not otherwise be possible.

Sarcomas are best managed by a multidisciplinary team, which includes a surgeon, a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist, a pathologist and a radiologist.


Each individual tumour has unique considerations depending for example on the site and grade and so treatment is best discussed directly with your doctors.

Want to know more about sarcoma?

Please click on the links below to download the latest sarcoma fact sheets.

Soft tissue sarcoma info sheet - Cancer Council Victoria
Click here to download

Primary bone cancer info sheet - Cancer Council Victoria
Click here to download

Link to more information about genetic conditions
Click here to access


Last update: 09-Jun-2011 05:37 PM

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