Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancer that occurs in muscle cells and tends to occur in children 1-5 years old. There are 3 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. It is not known what causes these changes in the cells. It is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Cancer Growth
Cancer Cell Division
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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.


You will be asked 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 therapy 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 therapy options include:

  • External—radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
  • Internal (brachytherapy)—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 current guidelines to prevent rhabdomyosarcoma because the cause is unknown.

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