Soft tissue tumours

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Soft tissue tumours can develop in the muscles, fat, blood vessels or other tissues that surround the organs. Read about the symptoms of soft tissue tumours, how they are diagnosed and possible treatment and prognosis.

Key points

  • Soft tissue tumours develop in any of the soft tissues in the body like muscles, fat, blood vessels or other tissues that surround or protect your organs.
  • A soft tissue tumour is a type of cancer called sarcoma.
  • There are two main categories of soft tissue sarcoma. They include rhabdomyosarcoma (say: rab-duh-mye-o-sar-coma) and non-rhabdomyosarcoma. Rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common type of soft tissue sarcoma in teenagers.
  • Diagnostic tests include an X-ray, CT scan, MRI and biopsy.
  • The main types of treatment are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

What is connective tissue?

To better understand soft tissue tumours, you need to first know a bit more about a type of soft tissue called "connective tissue".

When we talk about the body, the word "tissue" means a group of cells that do a certain job together. The muscle in your heart is a tissue that squeezes to pump blood. The skin on the palm of your hand is a tissue that senses touch and protects the inside of your hand.

The connective tissue in your body is a network of flexible tissues that connect, protect and hold your body together. These tissues include:

  • muscles, which allow the body to move and give us strength to do things like walk, jump or lift
  • nerves, which carry messages between our brain and body
  • blood vessels, which are little tubes that carry blood around our body
  • fat, which stores energy, keeps us warm, and also makes a cushion around our organs
  • cartilage, which is softer than bones and protects our joints
  • tendons and ligaments, which connect our bones and muscles in our joints
  • scar tissue, which repairs our body when we are injured

Connective tissues are made of cells that are always active. When part of the tissue is damaged or when cells in the tissue die, the healthy cells will repair the damage by dividing and making new cells.

What are soft tissue tumours?

A soft tissue tumour is a tumour that grows in your soft tissue. Remember that a tumour starts with a mistake in your DNA called a mutation. This mutation causes the cell to divide out of control and not die when it is supposed to. It also stops it from doing the job of a normal soft tissue cell. This mutation can happen in any of the cells in the soft tissue of your body. The mutated cell continues to divide and forms a mass of mutated cells called a tumour.

Soft tissue sarcomas can occur anywhere in the body. They are most commonly found in the head and neck or the arms and legs.

What are the symptoms of soft tissue tumours?

The symptoms of soft tissue sarcoma are different for each person, depending on where the tumour is located. Common symptoms include:

  • a lump in your arm or leg, which may or may not hurt
  • possible back pain, abdominal (belly) pain or trouble going to the bathroom if you have a tumour in your abdomen
  • possible headaches, if you have a tumour in or around your brain

Cancer stage

Your doctor might talk to you and your family about the stage of your cancer. The stage of your soft tissue tumour depends mainly on whether the cancer is only in one spot or has spread somewhere else (metastasized). The lymph nodes or the lungs are the most common locations for soft tissue sarcoma to spread. Sometimes, the cancer can also spread to the bones.

How are soft tissue tumours diagnosed?

Doctors learn what type of soft tissue tumour you have through a process called diagnosis.

Usually, diagnosis of a soft tissue tumour starts with a doctor examining you and asking you a lot of questions about how you are feeling and why you came to the clinic or the hospital. The doctor will do an X-ray and a CT scan or MRI to get a picture of the inside of your body. Then, the doctor will do a biopsy to get a sample of the cells in the tumour. The doctor will look at this sample under a microscope to check for cancerous cells. The doctor may also order more scans to get more pictures of the inside of your body. These can help the doctor see if the cancer has spread.

How are soft tissue tumours treated?

Doctors use the information they gather to diagnose what type of soft tissue tumour you have, the stage of the tumour and to plan your treatment. The main types of treatment for soft tissue tumours are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The goal of treatment is to remove or kill all the cancerous cells in your body. You will learn more about different types of treatment in the sections on cancer medications and cancer treatments and support therapies.

Prognosis for soft tissue tumours

Your doctor will talk to you and your family about the prognosis for your soft tissue cancer. A prognosis means the likelihood or chance that treatment will work and that you will get better from cancer. Each type of soft tissue sarcoma has a different prognosis depending on:

  • the type of soft tissue tumour
  • the stage of the cancer (whether it has spread)
  • the size of the tumour

Your best source of information about your soft tissue tumour is your health-care team. If you have any questions or there is anything you do not understand about your soft tissue tumour, ask your doctors and nurses. They want to help you understand your cancer.

If you are nervous about asking the doctors or nurses yourself, you can talk to your parent/caregiver. They may be able to answer your questions or help you ask questions when you meet the health-care team.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019