Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma Treatment (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

General Information About Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

Soft tissues of the body connect, support, and surround other body parts and organs. The soft tissues include the following:

Soft tissue sarcoma may be found anywhere in the body. In children, the tumors form most often in the arms, legs, or trunk (chest and abdomen).

The cells of each type of sarcoma look different under a microscope. The soft tissue tumors are grouped based on the type of soft tissue cell where they first formed.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common type of childhood soft tissue sarcoma. It begins in muscles that surround bone. Rhabdomyosarcoma is not discussed in this summary. (See the PDQ summary on Childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma Treatment for more information.) This summary is about the other types of soft tissue sarcoma:

Besides rhabdomyosarcomas, the most common soft tissue sarcomas in children are in joint tissue, connective tissue, and nerve tissue.

Soft tissue sarcoma occurs in children and adults. Soft tissue sarcoma in children may respond differently to treatment, and may have a better outcome than soft tissue sarcoma in adults. (See the PDQ summary on Adult Soft Tissue Sarcoma Treatment for more information on treatment in adults.)

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for childhood soft tissue sarcoma include having the following inherited disorders:

Other risk factors include the following:

A sarcoma may appear as a painless lump under the skin, often on an arm, a leg, or the trunk. There may be no other symptoms at first. As the sarcoma grows larger and presses on nearby organs, nerves, muscles, or blood vessels, symptoms may occur, including pain or weakness.

Other conditions may cause the same symptoms that soft tissue sarcomas do. A doctor should be consulted if any of these problems occur.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

If these tests show there may be a soft tissue sarcoma, a biopsy is done. One of the following types of biopsies may be used:

  • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy: The removal of tissue or fluid using a thin needle. A pathologist views the tissue or fluid under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Core biopsy: The removal of tissue using a wide needle. This procedure may be guided using ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Incisional biopsy: The removal of part of a lump or a sample of tissue. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells.
  • Excisional biopsy: The removal of an entire lump or area of tissue that doesn't look normal. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. An excisional biopsy may be used to completely remove smaller tumors that are near the surface of the skin.

In order to plan the best treatment, a large sample of tissue may be removed during the biopsy to find out the type of soft tissue sarcoma and do laboratory tests. Tissue samples will be taken from the primary tumor, lymph nodes, and other areas that may have a tumor. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells and to find out the type and grade of the tumor. The grade of a tumor depends on how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the cells are dividing. High-grade and mid-grade tumors usually grow and spread more quickly than low-grade tumors. Because soft tissue sarcoma can be hard to diagnose, patients should ask to have the tissue sample checked by a pathologist who has experience in diagnosing soft tissue sarcoma.

One or more of the following laboratory tests may be done to study the tissue samples:

  • Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
  • Immunohistochemistry study: A laboratory test in which dyes or enzymes are added to a blood or bone marrow sample to test for certain antigens (proteins that stimulate the body's immune response).
  • Immunocytochemistry study: A laboratory test that uses different substances to stain (color) cells in a sample of tissue. This is used to tell the difference between the different types of soft tissue sarcoma.
  • Light and electron microscopy: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under regular and high-powered microscopes to look for certain changes in the cells.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The type of soft tissue sarcoma.
  • The stage of the cancer (the amount of tumor remaining after surgery to remove it or whether the tumor has spread to other places in the body).
  • The location, grade, and size of the tumor and how deep under the skin the tumor is.
  • Whether the patient also has a condition called neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1).
  • The age of the patient.
  • Whether the cancer has just been diagnosed or has recurred (come back).

Stages of Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the soft tissue or to other parts of the body is called staging. There is no standard staging system for childhood soft tissue sarcoma. Two methods that are commonly used for staging are based on the amount of tumor remaining after surgery to remove the tumor and/or the grade and size of the tumor and whether it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.

The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy may be used to stage childhood soft tissue sarcoma. This is the removal of the sentinel lymph node during surgery. The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node to receive lymphatic drainage from a tumor. It is the first lymph node the cancer is likely to spread to from the tumor. A radioactive substance and/or blue dye is injected near the tumor. The substance or dye flows through the lymph ducts to the lymph nodes. The first lymph node to receive the substance or dye is removed. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. If cancer cells are not found, it may not be necessary to remove more lymph nodes.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.

The results of the sentinel lymph node biopsy and CT scan are viewed together with the results of the diagnostic tests and initial surgery to determine the stage of the soft tissue sarcoma.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

In nonmetastatic childhood soft tissue sarcoma, the cancer has been partly or completely removed by surgery and has not spread to other parts of the body.

  • Group I: The tumor has been completely removed by surgery.
  • Group II: After surgery to remove the tumor, there are remaining cancer cells that can be seen only with a microscope.
  • Group III: After surgery, there is tumor remaining that can be seen with the eye.
  • Group IV: The cancer has spread from where it started to other parts of the body (metastasis).

This staging system is based on the following:

  • The size of the tumor.
  • Whether the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Whether the tumor has spread to other parts of the body.
Pea, peanut, walnut, and lime show tumor sizes.

Stage I is divided into stages IA and IB:

Stage II is divided into stage IIA and stage IIB:

In stage III, the tumor is either:

In stage IV, the tumor is any grade, any size, and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes. Cancer has spread to distant parts of the body such as the lungs.

Recurrent and Progressive Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

Recurrent childhood soft tissue sarcoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the same place or in other parts of the body. Progressive childhood soft tissue sarcoma is cancer that did not respond to treatment.

Treatment Option Overview

Different types of treatments are available for patients with childhood soft tissue sarcoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other health care providers who are experts in treating children with soft tissue sarcoma and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include a pediatric surgeon with special training in the removal of soft tissue sarcomas. The following specialists may also be included:

Side effects from cancer treatment that begin during or after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of cancer treatment may include:

  • Physical problems.
  • Changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory.
  • Second cancers (new types of cancer).

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the effects cancer treatment can have on your child. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information.)

Surgery to completely remove the soft tissue sarcoma is done whenever possible. If the tumor is very large, radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be given first, to make the tumor smaller and decrease the amount of tissue that needs to be removed during surgery. The following types of surgery may be used:

  • Wide local excision: Removal of the tumor along with some normal tissue around it.
  • Amputation: Surgery to remove part or all of a limb or appendage, such as the arm or hand.
  • Limb-sparing surgery: Removal of the tumor in an arm or leg without amputation, so the use and appearance of the limb is saved. Radiation therapy or chemotherapy may be given first to shrink the tumor. The tumor is then removed in a wide local excision. Tissue and bone that are removed may be replaced with a graft using tissue and bone taken from another part of the patient's body, or with an implant such as artificial bone.
  • Lymphadenectomy: Removal of the lymph nodes that contain cancer.

A second surgery may be needed to:

  • remove any remaining cancer cells.
  • check the area around where the tumor was removed for cancer cells and then remove them.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given radiation therapy or chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy.

External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Stereotactic radiation therapy aims radiation directly to a tumor, causing less damage to normal tissue around the tumor. The total dose of radiation is divided into several smaller doses given over several days. This procedure is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.

Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). Combination chemotherapy is the use of more than one anticancer drug. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Hormone therapy is a cancer treatment that removes hormones or blocks their action and stops cancer cells from growing. Hormones are substances made by glands in the body and circulated in the bloodstream. Some hormones can cause certain cancers to grow. If tests show that the cancer cells have places where hormones can attach (receptors), drugs, surgery, or radiation therapy is used to reduce the production of hormones or block them from working. Antiestrogens (drugs that block estrogen) may be used to treat childhood soft tissue sarcoma.

Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient's condition without giving any treatment until symptoms appear or change. Watchful waiting may be done when complete removal of the tumor is not possible, no other treatments are available, and the tumor does not place any vital organs in danger.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are drugs (such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen) that are commonly used to decrease fever, swelling, pain, and redness. In the treatment of soft tissue sarcomas, an NSAID called sulindac may be used to help block the growth of cancer cells.

The liver is removed and replaced with a healthy one from a donor.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to find and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Imatinib (Gleevec) is a type of targeted therapy called a tyrosine kinase inhibitor. It finds and blocks an abnormal protein on cancer cells that causes them to divide and grow.

Other targeted therapies being studied in clinical trials include angiogenesis inhibitors. In cancer treatment, angiogenesis inhibitors prevent the growth of new blood vessels needed for tumors to grow.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Treatment Options for Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

A link to a list of current clinical trials is included for each treatment section. For some types or stages of cancer, there may not be any trials listed. Check with your doctor for clinical trials that are not listed here but may be right for you.

Nonmetastatic Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

For treatment of hemangiopericytoma (in infants and young children) and infantile fibrosarcoma

If an infant or young child has fibrosarcoma or hemangiopericytoma, treatment will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumor, followed by surgery.

If an older child or adolescent has fibrosarcoma or hemangiopericytoma, treatment will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy, surgery, or both.
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy after surgery.
  • A clinical trial of internal radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy given during surgery.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by watchful waiting, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy, based on the grade of the tumor and the amount of tumor that is removed by surgery. Sometimes chemotherapy may be given before surgery.

For treatment of desmoid tumor

Treatment of desmoid tumor will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include watchful waiting, chemotherapy, or surgery followed by internal radiation therapy.

If surgery to completely remove the tumor is not possible, treatment to shrink the tumor before surgery may include the following:

For treatment of alveolar soft part sarcoma

Treatment of alveolar soft part sarcoma will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include the following:

For treatment of clear cell sarcoma of soft parts

Treatment of clear cell sarcoma of soft parts will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include the following:

For treatment of desmoplastic small round cell tumor

Treatment of desmoplastic small round cell tumor may include surgery, chemotherapy (which may be given before surgery), and radiation therapy.

For treatment of extraosseous osteosarcoma

See the PDQ summary on Osteosarcoma and Malignant Fibrous Histiocytoma of Bone Treatment for more information on the treatment of extraosseous osteosarcoma.

For treatment of malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor

Treatment of malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include the following:

For treatment of plexiform histiocytic tumor

Treatment of plexiform histiocytic tumor is surgery to completely remove the tumor.

For treatment of synovial sarcoma

Treatment of synovial sarcoma may include the following:

For treatment of undifferentiated soft tissue sarcoma

Treatment of undifferentiated soft tissue sarcoma may be within a clinical trial for patients with nonrhabdomyosarcomatous soft tissue sarcomas (NRSTS). This study includes surgery and/or radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy.

For treatment of angiosarcoma and lymphangiosarcoma

Treatment of angiosarcoma and lymphangiosarcoma may include the following:

For treatment of hemangioendothelioma

Treatment of hemangioendothelioma in children younger than one year may include the following:

Treatment of hemangioendothelioma in children aged one year and older may include the following:

For treatment of aggressive fibromatosis, dermatofibrosarcoma, and angiomatoid malignant fibrous histiocytoma

Treatment of these tumor types will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include the following:

For treatment of epithelioid sarcoma, leiomyosarcoma, liposarcoma, and mesenchymal chondrosarcoma

Treatment of these tumor types will be surgery whenever possible. Other treatments may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy, surgery, or both.
  • Radiation therapy or chemotherapy after surgery.
  • A clinical trial of internal radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy given during surgery.
  • A clinical trial of surgery followed by watchful waiting, chemotherapy, and/or radiation therapy, based on the grade of the tumor and the amount of tumor that is removed by surgery. Sometimes chemotherapy may be given before surgery.

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with nonmetastatic childhood soft tissue sarcoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Metastatic Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

Treatment of metastatic childhood soft tissue sarcoma may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with metastatic childhood soft tissue sarcoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Recurrent and Progressive Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

Treatment of recurrent or progressive childhood soft tissue sarcoma may include the following:

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent childhood soft tissue sarcoma. For more specific results, refine the search by using other search features, such as the location of the trial, the type of treatment, or the name of the drug. General information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

To Learn More About Childhood Soft Tissue Sarcoma

For more information from the National Cancer Institute about childhood soft tissue sarcoma, see the following:

For more childhood cancer information and other general cancer resources from the National Cancer Institute, see the following:



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