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What Causes Soft Tissue Sarcomas?

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Scientists don't know exactly what causes most soft tissue sarcomas , but they have found some risk factors that can make a person more likely to develop these cancers. And research has shown that some of these risk factors affect the genes in cells in the soft tissues.

Researchers have made great progress in understanding how certain changes in DNA (pieces of genes) can cause normal cells to become cancer. DNA carries the instructions for nearly everything our cells do. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than just the way we look.

The DNA is made of genes. Genes carry the recipes for making proteins, the molecules that control all cell functions. Some genes contain instructions for proteins that control when our cells grow and divide.

  • Certain genes that promote cell division are called oncogenes.
  • Others that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes.

Cancers can be caused by DNA mutations (defects) that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Many family cancer syndromes have been found in which inherited DNA mutations cause a very high risk of developing breast, colon, kidney, eye, or other cancers. Some of these syndromes are also linked to an increased risk of developing soft tissue sarcomas. (These syndromes were noted in Risk Factors for Soft Tissue Sarcomas) The syndromes are caused by defects (mutations) in genes that can be inherited (passed on) from a parent. Some of these gene defects can be found through testing. For more on this, see Family Cancer Syndromes and Genetics and Cancer.

DNA mutations in soft tissue sarcoma are common. But they're usually acquired during life rather than having been inherited before birth. Acquired mutations may result from exposure to radiation or cancer-causing chemicals. In most sarcomas, they occur for no apparent reason.

Researchers still don't know why most soft tissue sarcomas develop in people who have no apparent risk factors.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: April 6, 2018

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