The causes of sarcoma are largely unknown, but there are some population groups who have unusually high rates of the cancer. Workers exposed to phenoxyacetic acid in herbicides and chlorophenols in wood preservatives have an increased risk. Others exposed to vinyl chloride, used to manufacture certain plastics, also have high incidence rates. Several disorders, including retinoblastoma and tuberous sclerosis, are considered risk factors, too, and patients who had radiation therapy as children or for certain types of cancer (retinoblastoma, breast cancer, lymphoma and cervical cancer) may also run a greater risk.
Sarcoma experts, however, are quite hopeful that research will deliver promising news in the future. A decade ago, for instance, patients with gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) normally lived nine months. Today, with Gleevec, one of the drugs that treats sarcomas, they can live more than five years.
In fact, researchers believe that, because some sarcomas are caused by something as simple as a translocation in a cell’s DNA, advances in sarcoma research might provide an opportunity for treatment developments in more genetically complex solid tumor cancers. Trent says he and his colleagues are using “smart bombs,” targeted therapy that focuses on a biological feature of the tumor to eradicate it.
Joan Scheiner of Coral Gables was diagnosed with metastatic mioleiomy sarcoma 15 years ago. The original site of the cancer was the uterus but the cancer, 24 tumors in all, was found in her lungs during a routine X-ray before a scheduled knee operation. Chemotherapy and surgery followed.
Now “I’m on a short leash. Any bump or lump I have removed. I’m seen every six months because the threat of sarcoma is still there,” she says.
Scheiner, 60, is chair of the board of governors of UM’s Sylvester, her way of giving back for the life-saving treatment she received during her illness. She preaches the gospel of awareness whenever she can and mentors cancer patients and caregivers.
“Don’t ignore your lumps and bumps,” she says. “If you have anything suspicious, if your doctors says it’s nothing but you have a sense that it might be, get yourself checked out at a comprehensive cancer center.”