Amanda Riley Foundation

Supporting Children Battling Cancer
Making a difference...one SMILE at a time! 

Facts about Rhabdomyosarcoma

What is rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare cancer but is the most common type of sarcoma (a tumor that is malignant, or that spreads) found in the soft tissues of children. Soft tissue includes muscles, tendons, fibrous tissues, nerves, blood vessels, fat and synovial tissues (which surround joints). Rhabdomyosarcoma begins in a type of muscle called striated muscle. The most common sites are the structures of the head and neck, the urogenital tract, and the arms and legs.

Who is diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma?

Most rhabdomyosarcoma cases are diagnosed in the first 10 years of life. Some children with certain birth defects are at increased risk for the disease, and some families have a gene mutation that increases risk, but the majority of children do not have any known risk factors.

What are the signs and symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma?

Symptoms vary depending on the location of the tumor. Tumors in the nose or throat may cause bleeding, swallowing problems or congestion. Tumors in the vagina may visibly protrude. Bladder and vaginal tumors may cause injury or bowel obstruction. Tumors in muscle may appear as a painful lump and may be mistaken for an injury. Diagnosis is often delayed because of a lack of clear-cut symptoms or symptoms that mimic injuries. But early diagnosis is important, because rhabdomyosarcoma spreads quickly.

How do we diagnose rhabdomyosarcoma in your child?

Our physicians may:

  • Take a sample (biopsy) of the tumor and look at the cells under a microscope
  • Use a CT scan, an MRI or a bone scan to look for metastases (spread of the tumor)
  • Perform a bone marrow biopsy (to look for metastases)
  • Perform a spinal tap to check for spread into the brain, depending on the tumor site

How is rhabdomyosarcoma treated?

Surgery is the most common treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma. Our surgeons will remove as much of the cancer as possible.

Sometimes radiation therapy is given; this uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may be given before surgery or after surgery. It may be produced by a machine or by putting materials called radioisotopes through thin plastic tubes into the tumorous area. Chemotherapy (cancer medicine) is also given.

Bone marrow transplantation is another type of treatment that is being studied for recurrent rhabdomyosarcoma. Sometimes very high doses of chemotherapy are necessary to wipe out rhabdomyosarcoma tumors that have become resistant to standard doses. These high doses of drugs, however, can destroy the bone marrow. Before chemotherapy treatment begins, marrow is removed from the bones and stored; the marrow is then replaced. This procedure is called an autologous bone marrow transplant.

Late effects/cancer survivorship

Some children treated for pediatric cancer develop complications years later.