by EBSCO Medical Review Board


Rhabdomyosarcoma is cancer in muscle cells. It’s most common in children aged 1-5 years old.

There are 3 main types:

  • Embryonal—more often in the head, neck, or genital and urinary organs (most common)
  • Alveolar—more often in the arms, legs, chest, belly, or genital or anal areas
  • Anaplastic—rarely happens in children


Cancer is when cells in the body split without control or order. These cells go on to form a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to harmful growths. These growths attack nearby tissues. They also spread to other parts of the body. It’s not clear exactly what causes these problems. It’s likely a mix of genes and the environment.

Cancer Growth
Cancer Cell Division
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Risk Factors

Your child’s chances for rhabdomyosarcoma are higher if they have:

Babies may have an increased risk for embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma if the baby:

  • Has high birth weight
  • Is larger than expected


In the early stages, the cancer is small and doesn't cause symptoms. A growing tumor may start to push on nearby structures. Problems depend on where the tumor is such as:

  • Head—stuffy nose or sinuses that drain, facial paralysis, or a hoarse voice
  • Eye—may make the eyes stick out or appear larger, and affect eye sight
  • Lung—may cause coughing and breathing problems
  • Bladder or bowel—may cause belly pain, vomiting, constipation, or problems passing urine
  • Uterus—may cause bleeding or discharge from the vagina, and pain in the pelvis or lower part of the belly

Your child may also feel tired or ill, and have weight loss.


The doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. Your child may also have:

  • A physical exam
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Tests on their genes
  • Imaging tests such as:
  • Biopsy —a sample of tissue is tested in a lab

The exam and your child's test results will help find out the stage of cancer. Staging guides a treatment plan. Rhabdomyosarcoma is staged from 0-4. Stage 0 is a very localized cancer. Stage 4 is a spread to other parts of the body.


Treatment depends on the stage. More than one method is used. Options include:


Surgery may be done to remove the tumor and nearby tissue. Nearby lymph nodes may also be removed at the same time.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation is aimed at the tumor from a source outside the body. It’s mainly used after surgery.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may given by mouth, shots, or IV. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. It's used when the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. This will slow the pace of the disease, but won't offer a cure.


There is no way to prevent rhabdomyosarcoma since the cause is unknown.


America Cancer Society 

National Cancer Institute 


Canadian Cancer Society 

Health Canada 


General information about childhood rhabdomyosarcoma. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2021.

Rhabdomyosarcoma. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2021.

Rhabdomyosarcoma in children. Cincinnati Children’s website. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2021.

Rhabdomyosarcoma in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed January 29, 2021.

Revision Information