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What is soft tissue sarcoma?

Soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer that forms in the soft tissues of the body. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer and spread to other areas.

Soft tissue is the name for all the supporting tissues in the body, apart from the bones. They include fat, muscle, nerves, tendons, deep skin tissue, lymph vessels, blood vessels and tissue around joints.

These tissues support and connect all the organs and structures of the body. They are known as connective tissue. A soft tissue sarcoma is a rare type of cancer that generally forms as a painless lump (tumour) in any one of these soft tissues. It can develop anywhere in the body, but most commonly in the thigh, shoulder, arm, pelvis and abdomen.

Malignant (cancerous) tumours have the potential to spread to other parts of the body through the blood stream or lymph vessels and form another tumour at a new site. This new tumour is known as secondary cancer or metastasis.

Types of soft tissue sarcoma

There are more than 70 types of soft tissue sarcoma. They are named after the abnormal cells that make up the sarcoma, that is the type of cell where the cancer first started to grow.

The most common type in adults is undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma (UPS), which is made up of many abnormal spindle-shaped cells. It is aggressive so it often returns or spreads after treatment.

Other types of soft tissue sarcoma in adults

Liposarcomafrom fat cells
Angiosarcomafrom blood and lymph vessels
Malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumour (MPNST or PNST)from the lining of nerve cells
Gastro-intestinal stromal sarcoma (GIST)from nerve cells in the gut (treated differently from other types of soft tissue sarcoma)
Stromal sarcomafrom supporting tissues
Kaposi sarcomafrom skin cells

Other types of soft tissue sarcoma in children and young adults

Rhabdomyosarcomafrom muscle cells
Ewing sarcoma(may also start in the bone)
Synovial sarcomafrom cells around joints and tendons

More information on the different types of soft tissue sarcoma is available from the Australia and New Zealand Sarcoma Association (ANZSA) and Rare Cancers Australia.

How common is soft tissue sarcoma?

Soft tissue sarcoma is rare. Around 1600 Australians are diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma each year (about 6 cases per 100,000 people). It is slightly more likely to be diagnosed in men than women. While soft tissue sarcoma can develop at any age, it is more likely to be found in people over 55 years of age.

Featured resources

Understanding Soft Tissue Sarcoma

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed February 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Susie Bae, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Tony Bice, Consumer; Dr Denise Caruso, CEO Australian and New Zealand Sarcoma Association, VIC; Emma Gardner, Nurse Coordinator, Bone and Soft Tissue Unit, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jonathan Granek, Consumer; Thelma Lobb, Consumer.