Carcinoma and Sarcoma: What is the Difference?

Carcinomas and sarcomas are different types of cancer. Carcinomas are much more common than sarcomas, but the biggest difference between them is where they occur in the body. Carcinomas are usually named for the location where they arise (such as breast cancer, colon cancer). Sarcomas can occur in many different body locations and are generally named for their appearance under the microscope.

Treatment for carcinomas and sarcomas is geared to the specific type of cancer a patient has, its stage or extent, aggressiveness, and other health factors. Patients should consult closely with their oncologist in developing a treatment plan.


Carcinomas begin in epithelial cells, which line most of our organs and tissues. The main types of carcinomas are:

  • Adenocarcinomas, which form in tissues that secrete mucus, digestive juices, or other fluids. Most cancers of the lung, breast colon, esophagus, stomach and pancreas are carcinomas.
  • Basal cell carcinomas, which develop at the base of the skin’s outer layer, and squamous cell carcinomas, which originate near the surface of the skin’s outer layer.
  • Transitional cell carcinomas, which occur in tissues lining the bladder or ureter (the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder).
  • Clear cell carcinomas, such as renal cell carcinoma, which develops in the lining of small tubes within the kidney and is the most common form of kidney cancer.

What are the symptoms of carcinoma?

The symptoms of carcinomas vary depending on which tissues are involved. Basal cell carcinoma, for example, can appear as a white or flesh-colored bump on the skin that grows slowly and may bleed, while squamous cell carcinoma may appear as a firm red bump, a scaly red patch, an open sore or wart that crusts or bleeds easily.

A good rule of thumb is to alert a medical professional to any changes you notice in your body.


Sarcomas form in mesenchymal cells, which make up the bones and soft tissues such as cartilage, muscle, and the fat in the bone marrow. There are two main types of sarcomas and more than 50 subtypes. The two main varieties are:

  • Bone sarcomas including osteosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma, and chondrosarcoma, which starts in bone, cartilage, or bone marrow
  • Soft-tissue sarcomas, which can begin in muscles, tendons, fat, nerves, blood or lymph vessels, or tissues around joints.

What are the symptoms of sarcoma?

As with carcinomas, the symptoms of sarcoma depend on where the disease forms. Symptoms of osteosarcomas can include bone pain or tenderness, a warm lump that can be felt through the skin, swelling and redness at the site of the tumor, and a variety of other effects.