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How Does My Doctor Know I Have Soft Tissue Sarcoma?

If you feel a lump or experience symptoms that might be caused by a soft tissue sarcoma, you should report them immediately to your doctor. Your doctor will attempt to find out what is causing the symptoms by asking you about the history of the symptoms. If your lump is painful, for instance, your doctor will want to know about the pain, including when it started and if there are things that make it worse. The doctor may also ask about possible risk factors, such as your family history. 

The doctor will also do a careful physical exam. If you have a lump, your doctor will determine its size and shape and the effect it has had on surrounding areas. Depending on what your lump feels like and where it is, your doctor may order a biopsy to obtain a sample of the tissue in the lump. This will determine if the lump is a soft tissue sarcoma. Once the biopsy is done, your doctor may do one or more of these tests to obtain additional information:

  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound uses sound waves to determine whether a lump or mass is solid or if it is filled with fluid. Fluid-filled masses, called cysts, are much less likely to be a sarcoma.  

  • Computed tomography (CT scan). In this test, an X-ray beam takes pictures of the body from different angles. These pictures are combined in a computer to produce a more detailed picture of the inside of your body.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test shows soft tissues better than a CT scan. In this test, large magnets and radio waves produce detailed pictures of the inside of your body.

  • Chest X-ray. This is a common test to look for possible spread of sarcoma to the lungs.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan. This test uses a very small amount of a radioactive sugar to look for areas of activity in the body that might be caused by a tumor. The results of this test are not detailed like a CT or MRI scan, but newer machines can combine PET and CT scans to give a more detailed picture of activity in the body. 

These tests can help show if there is a growth, where it is, and sometimes whether it has spread. On occasion, 1 or more of these tests may be done prior to a biopsy. Your doctor may use the results to determine the cause of the problem, or he or she may order more tests. If your doctor does not order a test, it is OK to ask why it is not necessary.