What is Rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma happens when abnormal cells grow together in the muscles and connective tissue to form masses called tumors. This rare cancer occurs most often in children and young adults. It most commonly forms in the arms, bladder, head and neck, legs, genital and urinary organs.

Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients with cancer and the diagnosis, treatment and management of rhabdomyosarcoma. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.

Signs and Symptoms

Rhabdomyosarcoma symptoms can vary depending upon where the tumors are located. Symptoms can include:

  • A lump that may or may not be painful
  • Bleeding, congestion, swallowing problems and/or neurological problems from tumors in the nose or throat
  • Bulging of the eye, vision problems, eye swelling and/or pain from tumors around the eye
  • Hearing loss, pain or swelling from tumors in the ear
  • Trouble urinating or having a bowel movement from bladder or vaginal tumors


To diagnose rhabdomyosarcoma, we ask questions about your medical history and do a physical exam. We then use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology to effectively diagnose, stage, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Common diagnostic procedures can include:

Biopsy: The physician may take a small sample of cells from the tumor, via a needle extraction or small incision, and look for cancer cells under a microscope. The physician may also conduct a biopsy of the bone marrow to see if the cancer has spread.

Bone scan: The physician may order this test to see if cancer has spread to the bones. For the scan, a small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein, which travels to the bones and organs. Radiation is detected by a camera that slowly scans the body. 

Computed tomography (CT) scan: This series of detailed pictures, taken from different angles, is created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine. The physician may order a CT scan of the tumor site or of the chest to look for spread of the tumor.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A large magnet, radio waves and a computer are used to produce pictures of the bones, organs or connective tissue.


Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare type of cancer and its cause is unknown. 

Risk Factors

Risk factors that can contribute to rhabdomyosarcoma include:

Age and gender: Rhabdomyosarcoma is most common in children younger than 10 years old, but it can develop in teenagers and adults. It’s slightly more common in boys. 

Exposures before birth: Some studies have suggested small risks of rhabdomyosarcoma from X-ray exposure before birth or parental use of drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

Inherited conditions: Certain inherited conditions increase the risk of rhabdomyosarcoma, including Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, Costello syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1 and Noonan syndrome.


No known lifestyle changes can prevent rhabdomyosarcoma.


With aggressive treatment, most people diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma achieve long-term survival. The possibility of a complete cure depends on the tumor type, location and how much it has spread.

Treatment and Recovery

Rhabdomyosarcoma treatment depends on a person’s age and overall health, the tumor type and whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Common treatments include:


Special drugs designed to kill cancer cells can be given as a pill or injected into the bloodstream.


This treatment uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer with substances made by the body or in a lab.

Radiation Therapy

High-energy radiation is administered to the affected area in order to kill cancer cells. Most often, radiation treatments are given five days a week for several weeks.


The goal of surgery is to remove all of the rhabdomyosarcoma tumor and any affected lymph nodes. Surgical procedures vary based on the site of the tumor. 

Targeted Therapy

These treatments use drugs or man-made antibodies to block the growth of cancer cells while leaving normal cells undamaged.


Complications of rhabdomyosarcoma can stem from the cancer itself or its treatments and may include:

Complications from treatment: These may include anemia or other blood disorders, constipation, effects on the nervous system, fatigue, hair loss, loss of appetite, mouth and throat sores, nausea and vomiting, pain, problems with thinking or memory, and other issues.

Inaccessibility for surgical removal: Some tumors arise in areas where surgical removal is not possible.

Metastasis: Cancer cells can spread through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other areas of the body.

Next Steps with MyChart

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