Sarcoma: Advances Help Fight This Lesser-Known Cancer

Most people know the basics about breast, colon and lung cancer. But you’re not alone if you don’t know much about sarcoma.

Here are some quick facts:

  • Sarcomas are uncommon, with approximately 13,500 new cases a year in the U.S. Compare that to the 281,550 new cases of breast cancer that are expected to be diagnosed in 2021.
  • There are more than 50 subtypes of sarcoma and they can occur anywhere in the body’s soft tissues. About half begin as a lump in the arm or leg. Another common location is the abdomen.
  • There is no screening test for sarcoma.

“The most important thing is that if you find a lump anywhere on your body, you need to have it checked out,” said Ramon Jimenez, M.D., chief of melanoma and soft tissue sarcoma surgery at Miami Cancer Institute. “In all likelihood, it will be benign or just a fatty growth called a lipoma. But if it’s a tumor and treatment is delayed, it can become more serious.”

Sarcoma most commonly spreads through the blood to the lungs and liver. (July is Sarcoma Awareness Month.)

While treatment traditionally has included chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, as scientists are better able to determine the genetic makeup of tumors, targeted therapies and immunotherapy are options in some cases.

“One example is in the case of a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST),” Dr. Jimenez said. “These can be anywhere in the GI tract, often the stomach, but also the intestines, rectum or abdomen. A very effective targeted therapy is the drug imatinib that goes straight to the tumor. Stage 4 cases that we once considered incurable can now be cured.”

Immunotherapy, using drugs that help the immune system attack cancer cells, is also showing promise in specific types of sarcoma.

Miami Cancer Institute’s deep and functional clinical collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York is another benefit to patients with sarcoma, Dr. Jimenez said. “They have the largest sarcoma unit in the world and a database of patients they have been maintaining for 40 years,” he said. “We often send them a biopsy for a second opinion because when we know exactly what type of sarcoma a patient has, we can offer the most effective treatment.”

In the case of radiation therapy, the Institute is unique because it offers every modality available, meaning that treatment can be customized for the patient.

Treatment for sarcoma, like many other cancers, has come a long way in a few decades. Sarcoma in a limb usually meant amputation in the 1960s and ‘70s. Today, however, almost all extremity surgery is limb sparing, Dr. Jimenez said.

“We have made much progress in treating sarcoma and bone cancers, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to be evaluated by your doctor if you notice a lump anywhere on your body,” Dr. Jimenez said. “When it turns out to be nothing serious, then you can sleep better.”

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