What are Soft Tissue Tumors?

Soft tissue tumors are abnormal masses that may occur in muscles, fat, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, or nerves anywhere in the body. They generally appear as round or elongated lumps, and can be harmless (benign) or cancerous (malignant). Although most soft tissue masses are benign, any newly discovered lump should be inspected by a doctor. If the mass is suspected to be cancerous, a biopsy may be recommended. This diagnostic procedure collects a tiny sample of tissue from the tumor, which is then examined in a laboratory to determine if any cancer cells are present.

Benign soft tissue masses are typically painless, tend to grow very slowly, and may go away on their own. The most common soft tissue tumor is a lipoma. Lipomas are soft, fatty masses that usually occur just under the skin in the shoulders, neck, belly, back, or limbs. Lipomas and other benign soft tissue tumors do not normally require medical treatment. However, if they are causing pain, they may need to be surgically removed, or excised. The procedure often takes out a very small amount of surrounding healthy tissue in addition to the tumor. Sometimes, medication is injected into the mass to shrink it before the excision is performed.

In contrast to slow-growing benign tumors, malignant ones, known as sarcomas, are more aggressive. Because they grow rapidly and can spread to other parts of the body, they require immediate attention. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are the most widely used treatments for soft tissue sarcoma. The location and extent of your cancer, as well as your overall health, will determine which option or combination of options should be included in your treatment plan.

As with treating benign tumors, soft tissue sarcoma surgery frequently involves removal of the tumor along with some surrounding healthy tissue. However, a larger portion of normal tissue is removed in sarcoma surgery than in benign tumor excision. After the procedure, edges of the excised tissue are examined for cancer cells. If any are detected, there is a strong chance that not all of the cancer has been removed. If this is the case, additional surgery or another form of treatment, like radiation, may be necessary.

Excision is not the only way sarcomas may be treated surgically. Although uncommon, arm or leg tumors can grow so large that an excision would result in chronic pain or a poorly-functioning limb. If this happens, amputation may be the only solution. Recovery from this major operation typically includes physical therapy and getting fitted with a prosthesis (artificial limb), as well as receiving training on proper use of the prosthesis. With adequate physical rehabilitation, a person who has had a leg amputation may be able to walk again using a prosthesis in a few months.

For patients who are not healthy enough to undergo surgery, radiation therapy may be an option. Radiation destroys cancer cells with high-energy rays, like X-rays. While it can be the main component of the treatment plan, it is often used as an added measure to surgical excision if cancer cells are found in the edges of the excised tissue. Radiation may also shrink tumors to make excision easier or relieve symptoms of the disease, especially if it is at an advanced stage.

If malignant cells have spread to other parts of the body, chemotherapy may be a suitable form of treatment. This is because chemotherapy uses powerful anti-cancer drugs that can be given into a vein, so it goes directly into the bloodstream and rapidly reaches all areas of the body. As with radiation, chemotherapy may be the main component of your treatment plan or used as an addition to surgery.

After completing treatment for soft tissue sarcoma, you will need to be monitored regularly for any signs of cancer recurrence. Checkups involve physical exams and diagnostic procedures like X-rays and biopsies. Sarcomas tend to return within three years, and though the risk of recurrence greatly decreases by the fifth year, some patients may receive regular checkups for up to ten years. Others may need an even longer period of monitoring if they were treated for sarcoma that had spread to the lungs or other organs.

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