Medical researchers are still working to conclusively determine what causes sarcoma. While scientists have confirmed that certain factors can increase a person’s risk of developing a sarcoma, the role that these risk factors play is still under investigation. At Moffitt Cancer Center, we are looking to discover why some people develop sarcomas while others do not, especially when both groups of people share the same established risk factors.
How does sarcoma develop?
Researchers know that sarcomas—like many other cancers—develop as a result of DNA mutations. These mutations can:
- Be passed down from parent to child
- Be acquired during a person’s lifetime
- Develop in the cells of virtually any soft tissue in the body (the type of sarcoma with which a patient is diagnosed depends on the type of cells in which these genetic mutations occur)
These DNA mutations prevent the body’s oncogenes (genes that promote normal cell division) and/or tumor suppressor genes (genes that cause cells to die when they reach the end of their normal life cycle) from properly doing their jobs. If the genes that regulate cell division and death do not function properly, unregulated cells can accumulate into tumors. Cancerous cells can continue to spread into the nearby tissues and lymph nodes.
Is sarcoma hereditary?
Scientists have identified a number of genetic cancer predisposition syndromes that may increase the likelihood that a person will develop some type of sarcoma. These genetic disorders are passed down from parents to children, which means the disorders are hereditary—but not everyone who inherits them will develop sarcoma.
For some types of sarcoma—for example, Ewing’s sarcoma—researchers have determined that the genetic changes that cause the cancerous cells are not hereditary.
Are there other risk factors for sarcoma?
Risk factors are conditions that can increase a person’s chance of developing cancer, but they don’t directly cause the disease. Cancer researchers have identified the following factors as being associated with a higher risk for developing sarcoma:
- A medical history that includes radiation therapy. People whose previous cancer was treated with radiation have a slightly elevated risk of developing sarcoma in the area where the radiation was directed.
- Lymphedema. Long-term swelling in the arms or legs can increase a person’s risk for developing sarcoma.
- Chemical exposure. Although most sarcomas have not been associated with specific environmental hazards, exposure to vinyl chloride (a component of many plastics) and arsenic have been linked to the development of liver sarcoma.
Do sarcoma causes vary by subtype?
Sarcoma is a rare form of cancer that has more than 70 subtypes, so it’s possible that what causes sarcoma may vary from one subtype to another. For instance, one study found that a mutation in the MYOD1 gene might give immature muscle cells the ability to divide uncontrollably instead of maturing into normal adult cells. However, this mutation was present only in tissue samples from embryonal rhabdomyosarcomas, and not in tissue samples from other types of sarcoma.
Moffitt Cancer Center's role in sarcoma research
Moffitt is the only Florida-based Comprehensive Cancer Center designated by the National Cancer Institute. As such, we receive support to conduct cancer research and provide a high level of services to cancer patients. Our Sarcoma Program encompasses a diverse group of sarcoma specialists, including medical oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists and others—all working together to provide each patient with an individualized treatment plan. Many of our patients also have access to clinical trials, which can provide them with groundbreaking treatments that are not widely available outside the cancer research hospital setting.
If you’re concerned that you may be at risk for developing sarcoma, Moffitt’s oncologists can explain what potentially causes sarcoma in greater detail and help you determine your risk for developing cancer. If you’ve received a sarcoma diagnosis, time is of the essence. When you turn to us, planning for your personalized treatment begins right away, even before you step in the door. We are providing every new patient with rapid access to a cancer expert, and there’s no need to get a referral before you reach out to us. Call 1-888-663-3488 or submit a new patient registration form online.
American Cancer Society – What Causes Soft Tissue Sarcomas?
Ewing Sarcoma - Childhood and Adolescence: Risk Factors
American Society of Clinical Oncology – Sarcomas, Soft Tissue: Risk Factors
National Institutes of Health – Sarcomas Associated With Genetic Cancer Predisposition Syndromes: A Review