615144 Health Library | Health and Wellness | Wellmont Health System
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma—Child


    Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancer that occurs in muscle cells. It most often affects children 1-5 years old. There are three main types:
    • Embryonal—occurs often in the head, neck, or genital or urinary organs
    • Alveolar—occurs often 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. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms. This is called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors. They can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor usually does not invade or spread.
    Cancer Growth
    Cancer Cell Division
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.
    This condition can spread in three ways:
    • Extending into other organs or tissues
    • Spreading to the lymph nodes by traveling through the lymphatic system
    • Spreading throughout the body by traveling through the bloodstream
    Organs affected:
    • Lungs
    • Liver
    • Bone
    • Bone marrow
    Tumors located in the ear, nose, or sinus tend to spread to the central nervous system.


    The exact cause is unknown.

    Risk Factors

    Risk factors for this condition include inherited diseases like:
    • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
    • Neurofibromatosis
    • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
    • Costello syndrome
    • Noonan syndrome
     A baby with a high birth weight or a baby that is larger than expected may be at increased risk for embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma.


    In the early stages, the cancer may be small and does not cause symptoms. As the tumor grows, it may push aside normal body structures. This can cause symptoms. The most common symptom is a lump or swelling. Symptoms vary, depending on the part of the body affected. For example, tumors found in the following areas of the body may develop these symptoms:
    • Head—tumor may be in nose or sinuses, causing blockage or discharge
    • Eye—eye may protrude or appear larger and eye muscles may not work well
    • Arm, leg, or trunk—lump or mass on these limbs
    • Lung—cough and breathlessness
    • Bladder or bowel—abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, trouble urinating
    • Uterus—bleeding or discharge from the vagina and pain in the pelvis or lower abdomen (in males, the tumor may be in the testes or prostrate)


    The doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and do a physical exam. She may decide to order an x-ray or other tests if she suspects a tumor. However, the only way to confirm the diagnosis is with a biopsy. A biopsy is the removal of a sample of tissue from the affected area to be tested for cancer cells.


    Once it is found, staging tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on the stage and type of cancer. Treatments may include:


    Surgery requires removal of the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue and possibly nearby lymph nodes.

    Radiation Therapy (or Radiotherapy)

    Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. When a tumor is aggressive, the doctor will remove as much of it as possible. Adding radiation will reduce the chances of the cancer coming back. Radiation may be:
    • 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 (metastatic disease). Then, the treatment is designed to slow the pace of the disease but is not considered curative.


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


    American Cancer Society http://www.cancer.org/

    National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health (NIH) http://www.cancer.gov/

    The Washington Musculoskeletal Tumor Center http://www.sarcoma.org/


    Canadian Cancer Society http://www.cancer.ca/

    ProCURE Alliance http://www.procure.ca/


    Cincinnati Children’s. Rhabdomyosarcoma. Cincinnati Children’s website. Available at: http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/info/cancer/diagnose/rhabdomyosarcoma.htm . Updated October 2008. Accessed July 13, 2010

    National Cancer Institute. 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 June 25, 2010. Accessed July 13, 2010.

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