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Quick Facts



The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020
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What is rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a fast-growing cancer that starts in cells that would normally develop into muscle cells. It happens most often to young children.

  • Rhabdomyosarcoma can start in any part of the body but most often starts in the head and neck, genital or urinary tract, or arms and legs

  • Rhabdomyosarcoma happens most often in children younger than 7

  • Treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation

What causes rhabdomyosarcoma?

Doctors don't know what causes rhabdomyosarcoma.

What are the symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma?

Symptoms depend on where the rhabdomyosarcoma develops. They include:

  • A firm lump under the skin, sometimes on the arms and legs

Your child may have problems related to the specific part of the body affected by cancer, such as:

  • Eyes: Tearing, eye pain, or a bulging eye

  • Nose and throat: Stuffy nose, mucus and pus coming from the nose, a changing voice

  • Genital or urinary tract: Belly pain, a lump in the belly, trouble urinating, or blood in the urine

  • Arms and legs: Firm lumps under the skin

Rhabdomyosarcoma in a child’s arms and legs will often spread, especially to the lungs, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. This doesn’t usually cause symptoms.

How can doctors tell if my child has rhabdomyosarcoma?

Doctors suspect rhabdomyosarcoma from your child's symptoms. To know for sure if your child has rhabdomyosarcoma, doctors will:

  • Do a CT scan or MRI

  • Remove a sample of a lump, or sometimes an entire lump, to look at under a microscope (called a biopsy)

If your child has cancer, doctors will do tests to see if it has spread. They'll:

  • Do a CT scan of your child’s chest

  • Inject a small amount of a radioactive substance to make a picture of the inside of the child's body (radionuclide scan)

  • Taking a sample of bone marrow (bone marrow biopsy) to look for cancer

It's easier to treat rhabdomyosarcoma if it hasn't spread.

How do doctors treat rhabdomyosarcoma?

To treat rhabdomyosarcoma, doctors will do:

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