About Soft Tissue Cancers

What should people know about soft tissue cancers?

Soft tissues connect and support other tissues and surround the organs in the body. They include muscles (including the heart), fat, blood vessels, nerves, tendons, and tissues that surround the bones and joints. Most soft tissue cancers arise in connective tissue.

Soft tissue cancers can occur almost anywhere in the body, but are most often found in the legs and pelvis, followed by the arms and upper body. This fact sheet is about cancers of the heart, peripheral nerves (nerves outside of the central nervous system) and soft tissues such as muscle and connective tissue that are not associated with internal organs. This fact sheet does not include information about Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer of the blood vessels that occurs among individuals with HIV/AIDS.

Soft tissue cancers are rare. Each year in New York State, almost 450 men and over 350 women, including children, are diagnosed with soft tissue cancers and about 150 men and about 140 women, including children, die from this disease.

Who gets soft tissue cancers?

Soft tissue cancers can develop at any age, however they occur more often in children and young adults, and adults over the age of 55. Rhabdomyosarcoma, cancer of the skeletal muscles, is the most common soft tissue cancer in children. Soft tissue cancers in adults most often arise from fat and fibrous tissue such as tendons and the fibers covering bones and other organs.

What factors increase risk for developing soft tissue cancers?

At this time, the causes of soft tissue cancers are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Hereditary conditions. People with certain hereditary syndromes are at greater risk of developing soft tissue cancers. These syndromes include: Li-Fraumeni cancer family syndrome, neurofibromatosis 1 (von Recklinghausen disease), nevoid basal cell carcinoma syndrome (Gorlin syndrome), hereditary retinoblastoma (a cancer of the eye that develops in young children) and Werner syndrome.
  • Personal history of cancer. Survivors of other cancers, such as childhood cancers and breast cancer, are at increased risk for developing soft tissue cancers later in life.
  • Ionizing radiation. Exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation, such as radiation treatment for other cancers, increases risk for developing soft tissue cancers.
  • Vinyl chloride. Workers exposed to high levels of vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics, are at increased risk of developing cancers of the blood vessels.

What other risk factors for soft tissue cancers are scientists studying?

Many studies have been done of people exposed to certain chemicals such as dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and weed-killers containing phenoxyacetic acids. Some studies found associations between the development of soft tissue cancers and specific types of chemicals, but others did not.

Scientists are also studying the effects of factors such as obesity, hormonal factors, and viruses. Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of soft tissue cancers.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting soft tissue cancers?

To help reduce the risk of getting soft tissue cancers:

  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.
  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

The following may help reduce the risk of developing cancer:

  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended cancer screenings.

For more information: