Cancer explained

Sarcoma – everything you need to know

9th July 2021

Sarcoma is a relatively rare type of cancer. But what is Sarcoma? What causes this cancer? How many people get sarcoma? And what are we doing to find new cures for sarcoma?

What is sarcoma?

Sarcoma refers to a group of cancers that can affect any part of the body. Sarcoma tumours arise from connective tissue such as bone, cartilage, or fat. Scientists estimate that there are around 100 different types of sarcoma based on the tissue the cancer starts in and where in the body it is located. Sarcoma is a relatively rare cancer, representing around 1% of all cancers diagnosed.

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What causes sarcoma?

Because sarcoma is so rare, it is less studied than other types of cancer. It’s not clear what causes most sarcomas, which is why research into sarcoma is so important. In 2021, we launched two new research projects dedicated to sarcoma – led by Professor Kevin Hiom and Dr Gerard Brien.

There are several factors which we know can increase a person’s risk of developing certain types of sarcoma, such as:

  1. Inherited genetic syndromes such as familial retinoblastoma and neurofibromatosis type 1 are known to increase a person’s risk of developing sarcoma.
  2. There is a known link between radiotherapy for cancer and an increase in sarcoma development later in life.
  3. Chronic swelling, also known as lymphedema, can increase the risk of developing a specific type of sarcoma called angiosarcoma.
  4. Exposure to certain industrial chemicals and herbicides can increase the risk of sarcomas in the liver.
  5. Exposure to the human herpesvirus 8 is known to increase the risk of a type of sarcoma called Kaposi’s sarcoma.

How common is sarcoma?

Rare cancers are much more difficult to collect reliable data for, but our friends at Sarcoma UK have managed to pull together the most recent sarcoma statistics which provide a snapshot of sarcoma in the UK.

  • In 2016, there were 5,240 people diagnosed with sarcoma in the UK.
  • In the UK, around 8 in 10 people diagnosed with sarcoma will live for a year after their diagnosis.
  • It’s estimated that in the UK only 55% of people will survive for 5 years or more after their diagnosis.

What are we doing to find new cures for sarcoma?

We know that there won’t be a single cure for cancer. There are around 100 different types of sarcoma and each one requires a different treatment approach. To cure sarcoma, we will need to find cures for each type of sarcoma.

In 2021, we launched two new projects focussed on improving our understanding of sarcoma and how we can treat it.

Professor Kevin Hiom at the University of Dundee is studying a type of sarcoma called liposarcoma and how certain genetic mutations lead to its development. His research will be the starting point for developing new treatments for this rare and understudied cancer.

Dr Gerard Brien at Trinity College Dublin is studying how a specific genetic mutation causes the development of a particularly aggressive type of sarcoma called synovial sarcoma. This type of sarcoma mainly affects children and survival rates are poor. Dr Brien’s research will improve our understanding of this cancer and pave the way for the development of new treatments.

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