What Is Sarcoma? - Definition, Types & Symptoms

Instructor: Sarah Lawson

Sarah has taught nursing courses and has a master's degree in nursing education.

Sarcoma is a type of cancer that can develop in various locations in the body. Learn more about the definition, types and symptoms of sarcoma and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Sarcoma Definition

'Cancer' is a word that everyone knows, but no one wants to hear. While cancer is a disease that nearly everyone has heard of, most people are unfamiliar with the term 'sarcoma' and what it exactly means.

Sarcoma is a rare type of cancer. It is the general term for a broad group of cancers that develop in the bones or in the soft or connective tissues of the body. They most commonly develop in the muscles, tendons, cartilage, nerves, fat, and blood vessels of the arms or legs, but they can occur anywhere in the body.

Sarcomas are different from the much more common carcinomas. Carcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in the cells of the skin, like basal or squamous cell cancers, or may be found in the tissue that lines internal organs, such as the lung or liver.

Types of Sarcoma

There are more than 50 types of sarcoma. They can be grouped into two main categories: soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma (or osteosarcoma). Approximately 1 out of 100 cases of adult cancers is soft tissue sarcoma; osteosarcomas are even rarer.


Osteosarcoma, also called bone sarcoma or bone cancer, is cancer that originates in the bone. Bone cancers are much less common than benign, or non-cancerous, bone tumors or secondary cancers that spread to the bone from other locations, like the lung or breast. Osteosarcoma usually develops in growing bones; although it can occur at any age, it's most commonly found in teenagers and young adults. It is slightly more common in males. Any bone in the body can be affected; the most common sites are bones within the arms or legs, particularly near the knee joint.

Within the group of bone cancers, different types of osteosarcoma are possible, including chondrosarcoma and Ewing's osteosarcoma. There are also rare subtypes, such as parosteal, periosteal, telangiectatic, and small cell osteosarcoma.

X-ray of an osteosarcoma in the head of the 4th metacarpal of the left hand.

Soft Tissue Sarcomas

Soft tissue sarcoma develops within soft tissues, such as muscles, fat, nerves, blood vessels, fibrous tissues, or deep skin tissues. Most of them develop in the arms or legs, but instances of sarcoma can also occur in the trunk of the body, the head, and the neck. About 80% of sarcomas begin in soft tissues.

There are several types of soft tissue sarcomas. These include:

  • Gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) - tumors that mainly occur in the stomach and upper part of small intestine
  • Leiomyosarcoma - cancer that begins in involuntary muscles such as the uterus, stomach, intestine, and blood vessels
  • Liposarcoma - cancer that begins in fat cells
  • Malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor - cancer that begins in the protective lining of the nerves that extend from the spinal cord into the body
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma - cancer that begins in skeletal muscles. It usually forms in the head and neck, bladder, vagina, prostate, testes, arms, or legs
  • Synovial sarcoma - cancer that is most commonly found in the tissues surrounding the knee, often in its joints and tendons
  • Undifferentiated pleomorphic sarcoma - this is considered a diagnosis of exclusion for sarcomas that cannot be more precisely categorized
  • Kaposi sarcoma - cancer that begins in the lymph or blood vessels. It usually develops as tumors on mucosal surfaces, such as the mouth, but it can develop in other areas of the body

Kaposi sarcoma along the gum in the mouth

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