Diagnosis and Screening for Soft Tissue Sarcoma
The combination of multiple types of soft tissue cancer and a lack of clear symptoms can make it difficult for doctors to confirm a soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis in its earliest stages. Soft tissue tumors can grow nearly anywhere in the body and are easy to miss. They most often appear first as a painless lump.
To determine whether you have soft tissue sarcoma, your doctor will need to conduct a thorough exam and schedule additional testing. An accurate diagnosis can indicate the type of your sarcoma as well as the stage of your cancer, which helps your healthcare team recommend the best treatment options for you.
How is soft tissue sarcoma diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose soft tissue cancer through a physical evaluation and imaging tests:
- Physical exams help your doctor initially confirm the presence and location of a soft tissue mass, as well as check the size.
- An ultrasound can show whether a lump is solid (indicating a tumor) or filled with fluid (indicating a cyst).
- X-rays can show calcifications or shadows that give clues to figuring out the specific type of soft tissue tumor.
- CT (computed tomography) scans are also used to see if the sarcoma has spread to the lungs or other organs.
- An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can give more detailed images than a CT scan, regardless of location in the arms and legs. At The University of Kansas Cancer Center, we offer high-definition MRIs which produce clearer images faster for a more accurate and timely diagnosis.
- PET (positron emission tomography) scans use a special tracer to show whether cancer has spread, and to what area of the body. A PET scan looks at the entire body rather than one specific area. Not all cancers show up on PET scans, and PET scans aren’t often used to diagnose soft tissue sarcoma.
If imaging tests show a mass that looks like cancer, your doctor will order a biopsy. During a biopsy, your doctor removes a small sample from the soft tissue tumor. A pathologist examines this sample under the microscope to determine the specific type of soft tissue sarcoma cells that are present.
Once the biopsy results confirm a soft tissue sarcoma diagnosis, your doctor may order more tests to determine whether the cancer has spread. This is called staging, and helps your doctor recommend the most effective treatment.
Staging soft tissue cancers is complex and based on several factors:
- Tumor size and grade
- Whether the tumor is nearer the surface of the body or lies deeper
- Whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
- Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body