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Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancer that occurs in muscle cells and tends to occur in children 1-5 years old. There are three main types:

  • Embryonal—often occurs in the head, neck, or genital or urinary organs
  • Alveolar—often occurs in the arms, legs, chest, abdomen, or genital or anal areas
  • Anaplastic—rarely occurs in children
Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these cells form a mass of tissue called a growth or tumor. Cancer cells also invade and destroy nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer Growth

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The exact cause is unknown. A combination of environmental and genetic factors probably play a role.

Risk Factors
Certain inherited diseases may increase the chance of rhabdomyosarcoma such as:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Neurofibromatosis
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
  • Costello syndrome
  • Noonan syndrome
Babies may have an increased risk for embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma if the baby:

  •  Has high birth weight
  • Is larger than expected
In the early stages, the cancer is small and does not cause symptoms. As it grows the tumor may create a lump or swelling. The tumor may then start to push on nearby normal structures and cause symptoms. Symptoms will vary, depending on where the tumor is and what it is affecting. For example, tumors found in the:

  • Head may cause blockage or discharge of the nose or sinus, facial paralysis, or a hoarse voice
  • Eye may make the eyes stick out or appear larger and affect eye sight
  • Lung may cause coughing and breathlessness
  • Bladder or bowel may cause abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, or trouble urinating
  • Uterus may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina and pain in the pelvis or lower abdomen
General symptoms may also include fatigue, feeling generally ill, and weight loss.

The doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

An x-ray may be done to create an image of the tumor and surrounding tissue.

A biopsy will be done to confirm the diagnosis. A small sample of the tumor will be removed and examined for the presence of cancer.

Further surgery may be done to determine the stage of cancer. Stage is determined by the size of the cancer, if it has spread and how far it has spread. Staging will help your doctor plan treatment.

Treatments may include:

Surgery may be done to remove the tumor and nearby tissue. Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body..

Radiation Therapy
Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. It may be used as treatment on its own or in combination with other treatments.

Radiation may be given before surgery to shrink the tumor before removing it or used after surgery to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back. Radiation options include:

  • External radiation therapy—radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
  • Internal radiation therapy—radioactive materials placed into the body near the cancer cells
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given in many forms, including: pill, injection, or by catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. Chemotherapy is generally reserved for only certain times, such as when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. It is designed to slow the pace of the disease but is not considered a cure.

There are no guidelines for preventing rhabdomyosarcoma, because the exact cause is unknown.

American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Canadian Cancer Society

ProCURE Alliance

Cincinnati Children’s. Rhabdomyosarcoma. Cincinnati Children’s website. Available at: http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/info/cancer/diagnose/rhabdomyosarcoma.htm. Updated August 2011. Accessed June 20, 2013.

General information about childhood rhabdomyosarcoma. National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health (NIH) website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/childrhabdomyosarcoma/Patient. Updated April 2, 2013. Accessed June 20, 2013.

Rhabdomyosarcoma. Cincinnati Children’s website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/cancer/rhabdomyosarcoma/detailedguide/rhabdomyosarcoma-what-is-rhabdomyosarcoma. Updated April 2012. Accessed June 20, 2013.

Last Reviewed May 2014

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