What is Rhabdomyosarcoma?

By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor

In this article:

  • Knowing the basics
  • Identifying the symptoms
  • Determining the causes
  • Identifying the risk factors
  • Understanding the diagnosis & treatment
  • Knowing the complications

Knowing the basics

What is rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is a rare cancer that forms in soft tissue – namely skeletal muscle tissue or sometimes in hollow organs such as the bladder or uterus. RMS can occur at any age, but typically affects children.

Although RMS can affect any part of the body, in many cases it develops in the:

  • Head and neck area
  • Urinary system, such as the bladder
  • Reproductive system, such as the vagina, uterus or testicles
  • Arms and legs

After completion of treatment, patients need lifelong monitoring for potentially late effects of intense chemotherapy and radiation.

Identifying the symptoms

What are the symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma?

The signs and symptoms of RMS depend on the location of the cancer. For example, if the cancer is in the head or neck area, its signs and symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • Bulging or swelling of the eyes
  • Bleeding from the nose, throat or ears

If the cancer is in the urinary or reproductive systems, signs and symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty urinating and blood in the urine
  • Difficulty with bowel movements
  • Bleeding or blood clots in the vagina or rectum

If the cancer is in the arms or legs, signs and symptoms may include:

  •  Swelling or lump in the arm or leg
  •  Pain in the affected area, although sometimes pain may not be apparent

Determining the causes

What causes rhabdomyosarcoma?

Experts have not yet determined the exact cause of the disease. However, according to researchers, if you have rare inherited syndromes, there is a higher risk of RMS.

Identifying the risk factors

What increases my risk for rhabdomyosarcoma?

In most cases, children with RMS do not have a family history of cancer. Although extensive study is required, the risk of an embryonic type of RMS seems to increase if the child has a close relative – parents or siblings – with cancer, especially when they are diagnosed before the age of 30.

In rare cases, RMS may be associated with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumours to form on nerve tissue. In rare cases, although more research is required, RMS is linked with certain genetic syndromes such as Li-Fraumeni, Beckwith-Wiedemann and Costello syndromes.

Understanding the diagnosis & treatment

The information provided herein is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with a doctor for more information.

How is rhabdomyosarcoma diagnosed?

The diagnostic tests performed partially depend on the root of the cancer. The following tests and procedures may be used to diagnose RMS:

  • Physical examination: A doctor will conduct a physical examination to look for abnormal signs, including symptoms, lumps or anything abnormal. The doctor would also ask about your medical and treatment histories.
  • X-ray: A doctor will require an X-ray examination to clearly see the internal organs and bones, such as through the chest.
  • Computerized tomography (CT scan): A CT scan helps doctors visualise the area of interest with more detail, such as the chest, abdomen, pelvis or lymph nodes from different angles. You may be given an intravenous or oral contrast to help make tissues and organs visible on screen.
  • MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging).
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography): a procedure to detect malignant tumor cells in the body.
  • Bone scan: an imaging test to detect metastasis, such as cancer cells in the bone.
  • Bone marrow biopsy and aspiration: A doctor will insert a hollow needle into the hip bone to collect bone marrow, blood and a small piece of bone.
  • Lumbar puncture: This procedure is performed to remove a sample of cerebrospinal fluid for testing under a microscope and check for signs of cancer cells.

If these tests help your doctor diagnose RMS, you would require a biopsy. Certain types of biopsies which your doctor may perform include:

  • Needle biopsy
  • Core biopsy
  • Open biopsy
  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy

How is rhabdomyosarcoma treated?

If you have RMS, your doctor will recommend a treatment guideline for you. Treatment will be based on your overall health condition, including other factors such as:

  • Stage of RMS
  • Type of RMS
  • Risk group
  • Tumor location

Doctors usually treat RMS by combining chemotherapy and external therapies, such as surgery, radiation, or both.

Chemotherapy is the most common method for treating RMS. Your doctor may require chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumor to allow complete removal of cancer cells. This method is also used as a treatment when the cancer has spread.

The goal of surgery is to remove as much of the tumor as possible. The doctor only requires surgery if the tumor removal does not cause any harm to the body. If the tumor is large, you would need to undergo chemotherapy, radiation or both to shrink it in size.

Radiotherapy is used with chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of these therapies after surgery to treat the remaining tumor. If you are deemed unfit to undergo surgery, your doctor will then recommend radiation therapy instead.

Knowing the complications

What are the complications of rhabdomyosarcoma?

If left untreated or treated untimely, RMS can cause metastatic cancer cells. This is the last stage of cancer and the survival rate of patients at this point is low.

In addition, long-term chemotherapy also puts you at higher risk of several side effects.

In fact, with intensive treatments, patients can still live longer. Cure depends on the type, location, and metastasis of cancer cells.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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