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Health Information Center


  • Michael Jubinville, MPH
Publication Type:




Rhabdomyosarcoma is cancer in muscle cells. It is most common in children aged 1 to 5 years old and 10 to 18 years old.

There are 3 main types:

  • Embryonal—more often in the head, neck, or genital and urinary organs (most common)
  • Alveolar—more often in the arms, legs, chest, belly, or genital or anal areas
  • Anaplastic—rarely happens in children


Cancer is when cells in the body split without control or order. These cells go on to form a growth or tumor. Cancer refers to harmful growths. These growths attack nearby tissues and can spread to other parts of the body. It is not clear exactly what causes these problems. It is likely a mix of genes and the environment.

Cancer Growth.

Cancer Cell Divisionhttp://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=72507250AU00047.jpgAU00047.jpgNULLjpgAU00047.jpgNULL\\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\AU00047.jpgNULL64NULL2008-11-074002407250_615144Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

A child's risk of rhabdomyosarcoma are higher if they have:

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. A growing tumor may start to push on nearby structures. Problems depend on where the tumor is such as:

  • Head—stuffy nose or sinuses that drain, 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 breathing problems
  • Bladder or bowel—may cause belly pain, vomiting, constipation, or problems passing urine
  • Uterus—may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina, and pain in the pelvis or lower part of the belly

The child may also feel tired or ill and have weight loss.


The doctor will ask about the child’s symptoms and past health. The child may also have:

  • A physical exam
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Tests on their genes
  • Imaging tests such as:
  • Biopsy —a sample of tissue is tested in a lab

The exam and test results will help find out the stage of cancer. Rhabdomyosarcoma is staged from 1 to 4. Stage 1 is a very localized cancer. Stage 4 is a spread to other parts of the body.


Treatment depends on the stage. More than one method is used. Options include:

  • Surgery—to remove the tumor and nearby tissue. Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed at the same time.
  • Radiation therapy—to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation is aimed at the tumor from a source outside the body. It is mainly used after surgery.
  • Chemotherapy—uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given by mouth, shots, or IV. It is used when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. This will slow the pace of the disease but will not cure it.


There are no guidelines to prevent rhabdomyosarcoma.





  • Borinstein SC, Steppan D, et al. Consensus and controversies regarding the treatment of rhabdomyosarcoma. Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2018;65(2).
  • General information about childhood rhabdomyosarcoma. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/soft-tissue-sarcoma/patient/rhabdomyosarcoma-treatment-pdq.
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/rhabdomyosarcoma.html.
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma in children. Cincinnati Children’s website. Available at: https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/r/rhabdomyosarcoma.
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/rhabdomyosarcoma-in-children.


  • Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.