What is rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancerous tumor that develops in the soft tissues of the body, usually the muscles. It can affect the head, neck, bladder, vagina, arms, legs, trunk, or just about any other body part. You can find more information below.

What is rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare type of cancer that occurs in soft tissue – especially skeletal muscle tissue or sometimes in hollow organs such as the bladder or uterus, and is also known as soft tissue cancer or sarcoma . Rhabdomyosarcoma can occur at any age, but most often affects children.

Although this type of cancer can occur anywhere in the body, it is more likely to occur in the following places:

  • Head and neck area
  • urinary system such as bladder
  • Reproductive system such as vagina, uterus and testicles
  • arms and legs

The outlook (prognosis) and treatment options depend on the type of rhabdomyosarcoma, where it started, tumor size, and whether the cancer has spread. Treatment is usually a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

Significant advances in the treatment of this type of cancer have significantly improved outcomes. After completion of treatment, people need lifelong medical follow-up for the potential after effects of intensive chemotherapy and radiation.

Causes of rhabdomyosarcoma

It is not clear why rhabdomyosarcoma originates. Doctors know that rhabdomyosarcoma begins when a cell develops changes in its DNA. A cell’s DNA contains instructions that tell a cell what to do. The changes tell the cell to multiply rapidly and continue to live when healthy cells would normally die.

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The result is a mass of abnormal cells (such as a tumor) that can invade and destroy healthy body tissue. Abnormal cells can break down and spread (metastasize) throughout the body.

Who is at risk?

Factors that can increase the risk of rhabdomyosarcoma include:

  • Family history of cancer: The risk of this cancer is higher in children who are related by blood, such as a parent or sibling with cancer, especially if this cancer occurs at a young age. However, most children with rhabdomyosarcoma do not have this cancer in their families.
  • Genetic syndromes that increase cancer risk: In rare cases, this type of cancer is linked to genetic syndromes that are passed from parents to children, including neurofibromatosis 1, Noonan syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, and Costello syndrome.

Symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma

The symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma depend on where the cancer is located. For example, if the cancer is in the head or neck area, symptoms may include:

  • Headache
  • puffy eyes
  • Bleeding in the nose, throat, or ears

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

  • Trouble urinating and blood in the urine
  • Difficulty in bowel movements
  • Mass or bleeding in the vagina or rectum

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

  • swelling or lump in an arm or leg
  • Pain in the affected area (pain may not always be)

When should you see a doctor?

If you have symptoms that worry you, especially those listed above, and they do not go away, it is a good idea to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosis of rhabdomyosarcoma

The diagnosis of rhabdomyosarcoma usually begins with a physical examination to better understand the symptoms that cause the complaint. Based on these findings, other tests and procedures may be recommended.

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Imaging tests

Your doctor may recommend one or more imaging tests to look for symptoms, look for cancer, and look for signs that the cancer has spread.

Imaging tests may include:

  • X-ray
  • computed tomography
  • magnetic resonance imaging
  • positron emission tomography
  • bone scan

Taking a sample of tissue for testing (biopsy)

A biopsy procedure is used to collect a sample of suspicious cells for lab testing. Tests can show whether the cells are cancerous and determine the type of cancer.

Biopsy procedures used to diagnose rhabdomyosarcoma include:

  • Needle biopsy: The doctor inserts a thin needle into the skin and guides it to the tumor. The needle is used to remove small pieces of tissue from the tumor.
  • Surgical biopsy: The doctor makes an incision in the skin and removes the entire tumor (excisional biopsy) or part of the tumor (incisional biopsy).

Careful planning is required by the medical team to determine the type of biopsy needed and how it will be done. Doctors need to do the biopsy in a way that doesn’t interfere with future surgery to remove the cancer.

Rhabdomyosarcoma treatment

Treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma usually includes a combination of treatments, including chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.

The treatments your doctor recommends depend on the location of the cancer, the size of the tumor, whether the cells are aggressive, and whether the cancer is confined to one area or has spread to other parts of the body.

Surgical treatment

The goal of surgery is to remove all cancer cells. However, this is not always possible if the cancer has grown in or near organs or other important structures. When cancer cannot be completely removed with surgery, doctors try to remove it as much as possible and then may use other treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, to kill any remaining cancer cells.

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Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. Treatment usually includes a combination of drugs administered intravenously. Which drugs are given will depend entirely on the individual situation of the person concerned.

Chemotherapy is often used after surgery or radiation therapy to kill any remaining cancer cells. It can also be used before other treatments to make surgery or radiation therapy more effective and shrink a tumor.

radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays such as X-rays and protons to kill cancer cells. It is usually done with a machine that moves around you as it targets the radiation at precise points on your body.

Radiation therapy may be recommended after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. It can be used instead of surgery when the rhabdomyosarcoma is in an area where surgery is not possible due to nearby organs or other important structures.

What are the complications of rhabdomyosarcoma?

Complications of rhabdomyosarcoma include:

  • Spread of cancer: This type of cancer can spread from where it started to other areas, making treatment and recovery more difficult. It often spreads to the lungs, lymph nodes, and bones.
  • Side effects of long-term treatment: Aggressive treatments needed to control rhabdomyosarcoma can cause significant side effects, both in the short-term and long-term. Your healthcare team can help you manage side effects that occur during treatment and provide a list of side effects to monitor for years after treatment.

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