What causes adult soft tissue sarcoma?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Not much is known about what causes adult soft tissue sarcoma, but it has something to do with the DNA that controls soft tissue cells. In people with adult soft tissue sarcoma, something has damaged the DNA that controls the production and growth of cells in soft tissue. These mutations cause new cells to develop too quickly and old cells to stay alive for too long. This results in a buildup of cells that forms a tumor. Many times, the DNA is damaged by external sources, such as chemicals or radiation. Sometimes, certain genetic disorders may damage the soft tissue DNA. In many cases, though, doctors are not sure what causes the DNA abnormalities that lead to adult soft tissue sarcoma.

Dr. Jill K. Onesti, MD
Surgical Oncologist

While some soft tissue sarcomas are caused by known genetic conditions such as Li-Fraumeni, the majority have no known genetic component. It is unclear why some people develop sarcomas. Although many people first notice a sarcoma when they happen to bump that area, the bumping or any other trauma did not cause the sarcoma. There are no diet changes or medications that can be taken to prevent developing a sarcoma.

Ashleigh Pugh-Clarke
Oncology Nursing Specialist

While the exact cause of adult soft tissue sarcoma is not known, some genetic alterations, environmental, and other factors have been identified as possible causes. Because of the large variety of sarcomas that exist, some factors may contribute to the cause of specific types of sarcoma (and not all types). For example: Paget's disease has been linked to osteosarcoma; and Ollier's disease may develop into chondrosarcoma.

Environmental risk factors related to sarcomas include pollutants, smoking, chemicals, infectious disease and radiation. Some sarcomas have been related to occupational exposures which include:

  • Cholorophenoles
  • Copper exposure
  • Androgenic-anabolic steroids
  • Herbicides
  • Arsenic
  • Dioxins
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Exposure in the workplace to higher concentrations of certain chemicals (i.e. radon or asbestos), metals and ionizing radiation provides a greater risk, which increases substantially with prolonged exposure, more intense exposure, and higher concentrations of pollutants.

Some hereditary conditions have been identified as influencing factors as well. These include:

  • Familial gastrointestinal stromal tumors syndrome (GIST)
  • Hereditary leiomyomatosis & renal cell syndrome
  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Von Recklinghausen disease
  • Hereditary retinoblastoma (Rb)
  • Werner syndrome
  • Bloom syndrome

It is important to note that immune suppression with conditions such as the Epstein Barr virus (EBV), human herpesvirus 8 (HHV8), and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has also been linked to some sarcomas.

In general, all cancer is caused by a sequence of genetic alterations that influence the loss of tumor-suppressor gene (TSG) function which results in damage to cell growth regulation. This applies to sarcoma as well as two very common genes that are often found to be altered in sarcomas are the p53 gene and the retinoblastoma (Rb) gene.

Finally, factors such as tobacco use, physical inactivity, and a diet high in saturated fat and low in fiber has the potential to influence one's overall risk of cancer.


Samuel, L. C. (2010). Bone and Soft Tissue Sarcomas. In C.H. Yarbro, D. Wujcik, and B.H. Gobel (Eds.). Cancer nursing: Principles and practice (7th Ed.). Boston: Jones and Bartlett.

Continue Learning about Soft Tissue Sarcoma, Adult

5 Resources for Patients With Soft Tissue Sarcoma
5 Resources for Patients With Soft Tissue Sarcoma
For patients diagnosed with prevalent cancers, such as breast or prostate cancer, finding information and resources about the disease and to receive c...
Read More
Treatment Options for Soft Tissue Sarcoma
Treatment Options for Soft Tissue Sarcoma
Soft tissue sarcoma, sometimes abbreviated as STS, is a rare form of cancer that begins in the soft tissues of the body. Some of the most common types...
Read More
How often does synovial sarcoma occur?
Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhDDr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Synovial sarcoma is rare. It accounts for between 5 and 10 percent of the approximately 10,000 new s...
More Answers
What are the different types of primary bone cancer?
Riverside Cancer Care CenterRiverside Cancer Care Center
Cancer can begin in any type of bone tissue. Bones are made up of osteoid (hard or compact), cartila...
More Answers

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.