What is rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancerous tumor that grows in the body's soft tissues (which connect, support, or surround organs and other body structures), particularly in the muscles that attach to bone and help the body to move. Just weeks into the life of a developing embryo, rhabdomyoblast cells (which grow into muscle over time) begin to form. These are the cells that can develop into rhabdomyosarcoma. Because this is a cancer of embryonal cells, it is much more common in children, although it can occur in adults.

What are the symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma?

Your child may not experience any symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma until the tumor is very large, especially if it is located deep in the muscles or stomach. Common symptoms may include:

  • a mass that can be seen or felt and may or may not be painful
  • bleeding from the nose, vagina, rectum, or throat (if the tumor is located in these areas)
  • tingling, numbness, or pain if the tumor compresses a nerve in the affected area
  • protrusion of the eye or drooping of the eyelid, which may indicate a tumor behind the eye

Keep in mind that some similar symptoms can be associated with more common medical problems and conditions. It is important to consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

What causes rhabdomyosarcoma?

Rhabdomyosarcoma is not associated with environmental factors, and it is important to keep in mind that there is nothing that would have prevented the tumor from developing. Some rhabdomyosarcoma tumors are thought to begin developing in the fetus. Rhabdomyoblasts are the cells at the initial stages of development of an unborn baby. These cells will mature and develop into muscles. Rhabdomyosarcomas usually have some type of chromosome abnormality or genetic mutation in the cells of the tumor.

How we care for rhabdomyosarcoma

Patients with rhabdomyosarcoma are treated at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center through our Bone & Soft Tissue Tumor Program. Because rhabdomyosarcoma can develop anywhere in a child’s body and will require surgery as part of treatment, it is important that your child be treated at a center that offers surgical expertise in the part of the body where your child’s tumor appears. At Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s we have urology, gynecology, head and neck, and general surgeons who have specialized expertise in treating these types of tumors in children.

Our center also offers a range of clinical trials for rhabdomyosarcoma, and we are New England's hub for the Children's Oncology Group — an international consortium of cancer treatment centers that conducts studies of pediatric cancers.

Our areas of research for rhabdomyosarcoma

Receiving care at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children's means that your child will have access to therapies being tested by the nation's top researchers in pediatric cancer. We are the New England Phase I Center for the Children's Oncology Group, a group of cancer researchers from around the world dedicated to finding new treatments for pediatric cancer.

Our scientists are conducting numerous research studies to help doctors better understand and treat soft-tissue sarcomas. Treatments being evaluated include angiogenesis inhibitors, which are substances that might be able to prevent the growth of tumors; and biological therapies, which harness the body's immune system to fight cancer or lessen side effects.

For many children with rare or hard-to-treat conditions, clinical trials provide new options.