Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Oct 11, 2019.
What is Ewing's Sarcoma?
Ewing's sarcoma is a very rare cancer that appears as a solid tumor, most often in children and teens. Most cases occur between ages 10 and 20, and about one quarter occur before age 10. Only a small percentage of people with Ewing's sarcoma are older than 20. Nearly everyone with this cancer is white.
Because Ewing's sarcoma typically develops in bones, it used to be considered a bone cancer. But it actually arises from a type of primitive nerve cell. That's why Ewing's sarcoma can occur outside bones, in the body's soft tissues. When it does, it is called non-osseous Ewing's sarcoma.
Ewing's sarcoma usually develops in the arms or legs. However, it can occur in the pelvis, ribs, spine, and, in rare cases, other bones or soft tissues. When diagnosed, about a quarter of Ewing's sarcomas have spread (metastasized) to another part of the body. The most common sites for a metastasis are
- the lungs
- another bone
- the bone marrow.
Like other cancers, Ewing's sarcoma is caused by abnormal cells that multiply out of control. The cells of Ewing's sarcoma have a change in the chemical material (DNA) that the person inherited from his or her parents. This change, called a translocation, usually involves a rearrangement of DNA between two chromosomes. The problem, however, is not inherited. It develops after birth.
Ewing's sarcoma does not seem to be related to
- exposure to radiation
- exposure to chemicals
- other environmental factors.
No one knows what causes the genetic change that leads to Ewing's sarcoma.
Symptoms of Ewing's sarcoma include
- persistent pain and swelling in an arm or leg, which may occur at rest and may even awaken the person from sleep
- a firm lump on an arm or leg, sometimes with tenderness
- a limp (if the tumor affects the leg)
- difficulty breathing (if the tumor affects the ribs)
- weight loss.
In physically active children, the pain and swelling of Ewing's sarcoma can be mistaken for symptoms of a sports injury. In those who have a fever, symptoms of Ewing's sarcoma can be confused with those of a bone infection. As a result, diagnosing Ewing's sarcoma may take time.
After reviewing your symptoms, your doctor will examine you and the painful area. Your doctor will check the area for warmth, redness, swelling, tenderness, limited motion, and any signs that a joint is involved. Blood and urine tests and an x-ray of the area usually follow the physical exam.
In most cases, the results of laboratory tests are normal because blood and urine tests can't confirm the diagnosis of Ewing's sarcoma. However, the x-ray usually will show an abnormality consistent with Ewing's sarcoma or another problem, such as bone destruction.
If your doctor finds x-ray evidence of a bone tumor, he or she will refer you to a hospital that has the facilities, personnel, and experience to treat bone cancer. There you will have further tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, to see whether tumor has invaded other structures.
After the tumor's location has been determined, you will have a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis of Ewing's sarcoma. During a biopsy, a small amount of tissue is removed and examined in a laboratory.
You probably will have a chest x-ray, CT scan, and a radionuclide bone scan. A PET scan may be ordered as well. Along with a bone-marrow biopsy, these tests can show whether the cancer has spread to your lungs, other bones, or bone marrow.
Ewing's sarcoma will continue to grow until it is treated. If it is not treated, this cancer can spread to the lungs and to other bones.
There is no way to prevent Ewing's sarcoma.
Ewing's sarcoma is primarily treated with chemotherapy. Surgery and sometimes radiation will also be used. The choice of treatment depends on the size of the tumor and on how much of the nearby tissue it had invaded.
Sometimes doctors give chemotherapy before surgery, which makes it easier to remove the tumor. Chemotherapy also lowers the chance that the tumor will spread to other parts of the body.
If treatment is successful, you will need follow-up visits with your doctor for many years. This is because Ewing's sarcoma can return in the 10 years following the diagnosis. Also, if you received radiation therapy, a second cancer may develop where you received the radiation. You also may suffer late side effects from chemotherapy. Your doctors will periodically order:
- blood tests to monitor blood counts and kidney function
- an echocardiogram to track heart function.
When to Call a Professional
Call your doctor if you or your child develops persistent or unexplained pain and swelling in a bone, with or without a fever.
After proper treatment, over half of those patients whose cancer has not spread are cured. The prognosis is better in children younger than age 15 and for those with tumors that are further down the arms and legs. People whose cancer has spread usually have a poorer prognosis.
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
American Cancer Society (ACS)
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
American Society of Clinical Oncology