Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare type of cancer that starts as a growth of cells in soft tissue. Soft tissues support and connect organs and other parts of the body. Rhabdomyosarcoma most often starts in muscle tissue.

Although rhabdomyosarcoma can start anywhere in the body, it's more likely to start in the:

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

Rhabdomyosarcoma treatment often involves surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Treatment depends on where the cancer starts, how large it grows and whether it spreads to other parts of the body.

Research into diagnosis and treatment have greatly improved the outlook for people diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma. More and more people are living for years after a rhabdomyosarcoma diagnosis.


Signs and symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma depend on where the cancer starts.

For example, if the cancer is in the head or neck area, symptoms may include:

  • Headache.
  • Bleeding in the nose, throat or ears.
  • Tearing, bulging or swelling of the eyes.

If the cancer is in the urinary or reproductive system, symptoms may include:

  • A mass or bleeding in the vagina or rectum.
  • Trouble urinating and blood in the urine.
  • Trouble with bowel movements.

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

  • Possibly pain in the affected area, if the cancer pushes on nerves or other areas of the body.
  • Swelling or a lump in the arm or leg.

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It's not clear what causes rhabdomyosarcoma. It starts when a soft tissue cell develops changes in its DNA. A cell's DNA holds the instructions that tell a cell what to do.

In healthy cells, the DNA gives instructions to grow and multiply at a set rate. The instructions tell the cells to die at a set time. In cancer cells, the DNA changes give different instructions. The changes tell the cancer cells to make many more cells quickly. Cancer cells can keep living when healthy cells would die. This causes too many cells.

The cancer cells might form a mass called a tumor. The tumor can grow to invade and destroy healthy body tissue. In time, cancer cells can break away and spread to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads, it's called metastatic cancer.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase the risk of rhabdomyosarcoma include:

  • Younger age. Rhabdomyosarcoma most often happens to children younger than 10.
  • Inherited syndromes. Rarely, rhabdomyosarcoma has been linked to genetic syndromes that are passed from parents to children. These include neurofibromatosis 1, Noonan syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome and Costello syndrome.

There is no way to prevent rhabdomyosarcoma.


Complications of rhabdomyosarcoma and its treatment include:

  • Cancer that spreads. Rhabdomyosarcoma can spread from where it started to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads, it might require more-intense treatments. This can make recovery harder. Rhabdomyosarcoma most often spreads to the lungs, lymph nodes and bones.
  • Long-term side effects. Rhabdomyosarcoma and its treatments can cause many side effects, both short and long term. Your healthcare team can help you manage the side effects that happen during treatment. And the team can give you a list of side effects to watch for in the years after treatment.

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Dec. 20, 2023

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