Ty Bassett wasn’t too worried when, in 2005, he experienced pain and an unusual swelling in the bottom of his right foot. But when he stopped at a podiatry center on a whim, he was given worrisome orders: Get an MRI and rush yourself to a doctor.
Days later Bassett received startling news. He had synovial cell sarcoma, a very rare kind of cancer — only 600 to 800 cases are diagnosed a year — and his 2½-centimeter tumor had wrapped around all his ligaments. He eventually underwent chemotherapy, an amputation below the knee, followed by more chemo.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t die. I have a baby at home,’ ” he said.
Bassett, 46, of North Bay Village, didn’t die, but staying cancer-free has been a struggle. Last year, during a routine follow-up, two tumors were discovered in his left lung. Once again he underwent chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumors. A recent CAT scan revealed the tumors were gone and he remains optimistic that he has beat sarcoma.
“Until my diagnosis I had no idea what sarcoma was,” he said. “Now I know it’s called a bad-luck cancer.”
There’s a good reason for that moniker. Sarcoma, a cancer of the body’s connective tissues, can be found anywhere in the body: on muscles, nerves, joints, bone, fat and blood vessels. The most frequent sarcoma sites are the limbs because they’re home to most of our connective tissue. But because these tumors are often hidden deep in the body, an early diagnosis is difficult. What’s more, sarcomas are sometimes dismissed as an innocuous lump or bump. As a result, the tumor is frequently large and has metastasized by the time it is discovered.
Sarcomas generally are soft tissue sarcomas or osteosarcomas, bone tumors. Sarcomas are rare — 12,000 to 15,000 new cases are diagnosed each year — and about 50,000 patients struggle with this cancer at any given time. Sarcomas are also deadly: About half are resistant to any form of treatment, though surgery combined with chemotherapy and/or radiation can result in a cure rate of 50 percent.
Sarcomas account for 15 percent of all cancers in children and young adults and about 1 percent in adults. But because there are 100 different subtypes, only a few hundred of each kind are diagnosed in any given year, making it difficult for the general medical community to properly diagnose.
That’s why it’s especially important for sarcoma patients to receive treatment in a specialized sarcoma center, says Dr. Jon Trent, director of the Sarcoma Medical Research Program at the Sylvester Cancer Comprehensive Center. The center, part of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, is the only multidisciplinary treatment center for the disease in southeast Florida.
“A community pathologist may see one or two of these,” he says, adding that doctors don’t immediately suspect sarcoma either. Yet, “if treated properly, you have a good chance to save the patient.”
Sarcoma patients also suffer another injustice: The cancer is often forgotten when funds are allocated. “There’s not a ton of research being done because pharmaceutical companies want to invest where they will get more results,” says Matt Alsante, executive director of the Sarcoma Foundation of America. “That and the fact that there are so many different subtypes makes sarcoma so much more challenging.”