Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancerous soft tissue tumor that originates in rhabdomyoblasts, the cells that normally develop into skeletal muscle tissue. The tumors can form anywhere in the body, but they are most often found in the head, neck, arm, leg, trunk, pelvis and gastrointestinal tract. Although this uncommon type of sarcoma can occur at any age, it primarily affects children and adolescents and is usually diagnosed before age 6. In adults, the condition is exceedingly rare.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a complex malignancy that requires specialized medical attention. Therefore, it is crucial to choose a high-volume cancer center with a team of top-tier specialists who have expertise in a wide range of disciplines. For comprehensive and personalized care, many patients turn to the Sarcoma Center of Excellence at Tampa General Hospital’s Cancer Institute. We are committed to making world-class cancer treatment available to everyone who needs it.

As an academic medical center, we also offer our patients the opportunity to enroll their tumor in our tissue biorepository, which is designed to further propel our research and help us continually make groundbreaking discoveries that improve cancer treatment for all current and future patients.

Rhabdomyosarcoma in Children

Although rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common type of soft tissue sarcoma in children, it is still quite rare. It can also affect many different areas of a child’s body. For these reasons, pediatric rhabdomyosarcoma is best treated by a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals who specialize in treating children.

With that said, childhood rhabdomyosarcoma often develops in “favorable” sites that are relatively easy to access and treat, such as the:

  • Eyes and orbital area
  • Head and neck
  • Gallbladder and bile ducts
  • Testes in males
  • Uterus, ovaries and vagina in females

The five-year rhabdomyosarcoma survival rate for children with low-risk tumors is 80-95%.

Rhabdomyosarcoma in Adults

Compared to rhabdomyosarcoma in children, rhabdomyosarcoma in adults tends to grow and spread much more quickly. It also tends to develop in areas of the body that are difficult to access and treat due to their anatomical complexity or the potential impact on the surrounding critical structures. Referred to by physicians as “unfavorable” sites, these include the:

  • Thoracic cavity
  • Area behind the abdominal cavity (retroperitoneum)
  • Nose and sinuses
  • Paraspinal area
  • Extremities

For these reasons, rhabdomyosarcoma in adults can be especially challenging to treat.

Rhabdomyosarcoma Causes

Scientists continue to study the harmful cellular DNA changes that can lead to the development of rhabdomyosarcoma. Thus far, the condition has been definitively linked to Li-Fraumeni syndrome, an inherited familial predisposition to certain rare cancers caused by a mutation in TP53, a tumor suppressor gene. Additionally, children who are exposed to certain chemicals—such as those found in tobacco smoke—are believed to be at heightened risk for developing rhabdomyosarcoma.

Rhabdomyosarcoma Symptoms

The signs of rhabdomyosarcoma can vary based on the tumor site. For instance, a head tumor may cause hearing loss in one ear.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Swelling or a lump that can be felt
  • Crossed or bulging eyes
  • Headaches, earaches, nasal congestion and nosebleeds
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding, which may occur between menstrual periods or after menopause
  • Pain during urination
  • Blood-tinged urine
  • Vomiting, stomach pain and constipation

Rhabdomyosarcoma Diagnosis

After taking a medical history and performing a physical examination, a physician will typically order images to further evaluate the tumor, such as:

  • X-rays
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans
  • Ultrasounds
  • Bone scans
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scans

If the results of preliminary diagnostic testing suggest rhabdomyosarcoma, the physician may order a tissue biopsy, bone marrow aspiration or lumbar puncture to confirm the diagnosis.

Rhabdomyosarcoma Treatment

Most patients who are diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma receive a customized combination of therapies based on the type and stage of the tumor and other unique factors. The main forms of treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma are:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy

Benefit From World-Class Care at TGH

The nationally renowned surgical oncologists in TGH’s Sarcoma Center of Excellence have vast experience in performing rhabdomyosarcoma surgery and other complex procedures. In addition to skilled surgeons, our multidisciplinary team includes hematologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pediatricians, nurses, social workers and supportive care specialists. Working together, we help every patient achieve the best possible outcome and quality of life.

In addition to a wide range of rhabdomyosarcoma treatment options, including groundbreaking clinical trials, TGH offers comprehensive supportive care services. If you would like to talk with an expert on our team, contact us at (813) 844-4151 to schedule an appointment.