Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS or "rhabdo") is a cancerous tumor that develops in the body's
soft tissues, usually the muscles. It can affect the head, neck, bladder, vagina,
arms, legs, trunk, or just about any body part. Cells from rhabdomyosarcomas are often
fast growing and can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.
Rhabdomyosarcoma (rab-doe-myo-sar-KO-muh) is the most common type of soft-tissue
cancer in children. Kids can develop it at any age, but most cases are in kids between
2 and 6 years old and 15 and 19 years old. Boys tend to be affected more often than
Treating RMS usually includes chemotherapy,
surgery, and radiation.
With early detection and timely treatment, most kids make a full recovery.
Types of Tumors
The two main types of RMS in kids are:
Embryonal RMS: This tumor usually develops in the head and neck
area, genitals, or urinary tract. It typically affects kids younger than 6. Although
it's an aggressive (fast-growing) type of tumor, most cases of embryonal RMS respond
well to treatment.
Alveolar RMS: This type, which is most likely to happen during
the teen years, most often affects the arms or legs, chest, or abdomen. It, too, is
fast-growing but often more difficult to treat. Most kids with alveolar RMS need intensive
What Causes Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS)?
The cause of RMS isn't clear, but doctors know that certain medical conditions
can make some children more likely to develop it. These include genetic conditions
Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that makes a person likely to develop
cancer at some point in his or her life
Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, a congenital (present at birth) disorder that can
cause too much growth in the body, including the internal organs
Costello syndrome and Noonan syndrome, both of which can cause deformities, developmental
delays, and other problems
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Rhabdomyosarcoma
Symptoms of RMS depend on the size and location of the tumor. Sometimes a lump
may appear on a child's body and there may be swelling, often without pain. Other
times, the tumor may be so deep within the body that it causes few if any symptoms.
Rhabdomyosarcoma in the head may cause headaches, bulging of an eye, or a droopy
eyelid. In the urinary
system, RMS affects urination (peeing) and bowel movements, and can lead to blood
in the pee or stool (poop). If a muscle tumor is pressing on a nerve, a child might
feel tingling or weakness in that area.
How Is Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) Diagnosed?
If a doctor thinks a child has RMS or another soft-tissue tumor, he or she will
do a thorough physical exam and order these tests:
Imaging studies. These will likely include a CT scan, MRI,
and maybe an X-ray, bone scan, or ultrasound. Not only will these tests help find
the size and location of the tumor, they also can determine if cancer has
a biopsy, a sample of a lump, a sore, or tissue is taken from the body for close examination.
This helps doctors make a diagnosis and choose the right treatment. Biopsies often
are done laparoscopically (using a small incision and a camera to guide the doctor's
movements). The tumor might also be removed completely, if possible.
Bone marrow aspiration
and biopsy. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside bones that makes
blood cells. This procedure involves removing a small amount of bone marrow tissue
and examining it for cancer cells.
How Is Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) Treated?
Treatment of RMS and other soft-tissue tumors depends on staging.
Staging helps determine the extent of the cancer and whether it has spread to other
parts of the body. Knowing the stage of the disease helps doctors decide how to treat
Staging takes into account details like the size
of the tumor (or tumors), how deeply the tumor has penetrated an organ, the area of
the body where the cancer began, and whether the tumor has spread to other organs.
Other information (like the type of tumor and the child's age and overall health)
also helps doctors develop treatment plans. Those plans can include the following
options, in combination or alone:
Surgery. When the tumor is in an area that doctors can reach
safely, surgery is done to remove as much of the tumor as possible.
Radiation. This treatment uses high-energy radiation from X-rays,
gamma rays, or fast-moving subatomic particles (called particle or proton beam therapy)
to target and destroy cancer cells. Besides killing cancer cells, radiation therapy
also can harm normal cells, causing physical side
effects like fatigue (tiredness), nausea, and hair
loss. Most side effects go away once treatment has ended. During treatment, the
health care team carefully monitors radiation doses to protect healthy tissue as much
as possible. This helps reduce long-term
Chemotherapy. In contrast to radiation, which destroys the cancerous
cells of a tumor in a specific area of the body, chemo works to treat cancer throughout
the body. Often, several chemotherapy drugs are combined to attack the cancer cells
in different ways. Like radiation, side effects are likely but will ease once treatment
Being told that a child has cancer can be a terrifying experience, and the stress
of cancer treatment can be overwhelming for any family.
Although you might feel like it at times, you're not alone. To find support for yourself or your child,
talk to your doctor, a hospital social worker, or a child life specialist. Many resources
are available that can help you get through this difficult time.