Soft Tissue Sarcoma

A sarcoma is a rare and complex cancer that begins in the bone, cartilage or connective tissue such as muscle, fat, nerves, tendons, lining of joints, lymph vessels or blood vessels.

What is sarcoma?

A sarcoma is a rare and complex cancer that begins in the bone, cartilage or connective tissue such as muscle, fat, nerves, tendons, lining of joints, lymph vessels or blood vessels.

Sarcoma occurs when abnormal cells in these types of tissue grow in an uncontrolled way. It can develop in any part of the body.

There are two main types of sarcomas, depending on which type of tissue the sarcoma starts in:

  1. Soft Tissue Sarcoma
  2. Bone Sarcoma

What is soft tissue sarcoma?

Soft tissue sarcomas can develop anywhere in the body but is more common in the thigh, shoulder and pelvis. There are more than 70 different types of soft tissue sarcomas.

Signs and symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma

Soft tissue sarcomas often have no symptoms in the early stages and can go undetected. They can cause pain and interfere with the body’s normal functions as they get bigger or spread.

Sarcomas can have different types of symptoms depending on which part of the body the sarcoma develops in.

The most common symptoms are:


Trouble breathing

A growing lump under the skin

This may be painless or painful and can be mistaken for a sporting injury or growing pains in young people

Whilst these symptoms may be due to other causes besides soft tissue sarcoma, it is always important to see your doctor.

Stages of soft tissue sarcoma

The stages of soft tissue sarcomas are classified by the TNM system, which stands for:

  • Tumour (T) – describes the size of the tumour and the extent the cancer has spread. The tumour can be graded from T1 (describing a tumour 5cm or less) to T2 (greater than 5cm).  The letter ‘a’ is used to describe a tumour that is near the surface of the body while ‘b’ indicates that it is deeper in the body.
  • Nodes (N) – describes whether the tumour has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Nodes can be graded from N0, where there has been no spread, through to N1, where the cancer has spread the lymph nodes.
  • Metastasis (M) – describes whether the cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Metastasis can be graded from M0, where there has been no spread through to M1, where the cancer has spread to other organs of the body and produced additional tumours.

Soft tissue sarcomas are also given a grade (G) from G1 to G3. Soft tissue sarcomas with a higher grade are more aggressive and have a higher likelihood of growing and spreading faster that those with a lower grade.

The TNM ratings are used in combination with the grade to determine the stage of the soft tissue sarcoma.

The following stages are used to describe soft tissue sarcoma of the retroperitoneum (the space in the abdomen behind the abdominal lining) in adults.


Frequently asked questions

What causes soft tissue sarcoma?

It is not known what causes soft tissue sarcomas, however there are some factors which are thought to increase the risk for development of soft tissue sarcomas:

  1. Previous radiation therapy – people who have been treated with radiation therapy for a previous cancer have a slightly higher risk of developing sarcoma. The sarcoma often starts in the part of the body that was treated with radiation, with an average time of about 10 years between the radiation treatments and the diagnosis of a sarcoma.
  2. Genetics – people with certain inherited syndromes have a higher risk of sarcoma
  3. Chemicals – exposure to certain chemicals (including vinyl chloride, dioxin and herbicides) are thought to increases the risk of soft tissue sarcoma.
  4. Lymphoedema – soft tissue sarcomas can sometimes develop in the area where lymphoedema has developed.

Helpful links


For a full list of references, click here.
  1. Cancer Australia. (2018). Sarcoma fact sheet. Retrieved on 20 July 2020 from
  2. Australia and New Zealand Sarcoma Association. (2020). What is Sarcoma? Retrieved on 20 July 2020 from
  3. American Cancer Society. (2018). Risk factors for soft tissue sarcoma. Retrieved on 20 July 2020 from
  4. Cancer.Net. (2019). Sarcoma, Soft Tissue: Risk Factors. Retrieved on 20 July 2020 from
  5. National Cancer Institute. (2020). Adult Soft Tissue Sarcoma Treatment (PDQ®)–Patient Version. Retrieved on 20 July 2020 from

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