Overview

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

Although RMS can arise 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 or testes
  • Arms and legs

The outlook (prognosis) and treatment decisions depend on the type of rhabdomyosarcoma, where it starts, tumor size and whether the cancer has spread. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Major advancements in the treatment of rhabdomyosarcoma have significantly improved outcomes. After completion of treatment, people need lifelong monitoring for potential late effects of intense chemotherapy and radiation.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma depend on where the cancer is located.

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

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

If the cancer is in the urinary or reproductive system, signs and symptoms may include, among others:

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

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

  • Swelling or a lump in the arm or leg
  • Pain in the affected area, though sometimes there is no pain

Causes

The cause of rhabdomyosarcoma is unknown, and it appears to occur sporadically. But having certain rare inherited syndromes may slightly increase the risk of RMS.

Risk factors

In most cases, children with rhabdomyosarcoma have no family history of cancer. More research is needed, but the risk of the embryonal type of RMS appears to increase in people with a first-degree relative — parent, sibling or child — with cancer, especially when relatives were diagnosed with cancer before the age of 30.

In rare cases, RMS may be linked with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue. Though more confirming research is needed, in rare cases, RMS may be linked with certain inherited syndromes such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome or Costello syndrome.

Complications

Rhabdomyosarcoma can spread from where it started to other areas, making treatment and recovery more difficult.

As with other types of serious cancer, aggressive chemotherapy and radiation for rhabdomyosarcoma can cause substantial side effects, both in the short and long term. The health care team takes steps to treat and manage these effects as best as possible. And it's important for you to learn what to watch for and contact your team with any concerns.

Prevention

Rhabdomyosarcoma can't be prevented. In rare cases, it's possible that a family history of cancer at a young age may increase the risk of RMS, but RMS is not inherited. And there is no known link to any lifestyle or environmental issues.

Any signs or symptoms should be checked out as soon as possible.