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What rhabdomyosarcoma is

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of soft tissue sarcoma – a cancer that starts in muscles. It can occur in children or adults. There are several different types of rhabdomyosarcoma and the response to treatment varies according to the type you have.


Types of rhabdomyosarcoma

There are 3 distinct types of rhabdomyosarcoma.

Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma tends to occur in children under 15 and in the head and neck region and the bladder or genital area.

Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma occurs in the arms or legs of older children and young people but can also occur in the muscles of the trunk.

Pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma usually occurs in adults and in the arms or legs.


Treatments for rhabdomyosarcoma

The main treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma is surgery, if it is possible to remove the tumour. The surgeon removes the tumour along with a border of healthy looking tissue around it. After the operation, they send the tumour to the laboratory. A specialist technician examines the border of healthy tissue for cancer cells.

If there are no cancer cells there, your doctor will tell you there were clear tissue margins. As far as your surgeon can tell, all the tissue containing cancer cells has been taken away. Having clear tissue margins means there is a lower risk of your cancer coming back in the same place. 

If surgery is not possible, radiotherapy may be used with chemotherapy to try to get rid of the tumour. Or you may have chemotherapy before your operation.


Treatment for embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma

With embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, the position in the body can decide the treatment. Surgery may be the initial treatment. Chemotherapy tends to work well for this type of sarcoma. You may have chemotherapy before surgery to shrink a tumour and make it easier to remove. Or it may be given after surgery to try to reduce the chance of the tumour coming back. 

If the tumour is in a place where it is not possible to remove it completely with surgery (for example, behind the nose or in the eye socket), your doctor will treat it with a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.


Treatment for alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma

With alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, usually the tumour is removed with surgery and then you have radiotherapy to the area where the tumour was. The radiotherapy aims to reduce the chance of the tumour coming back in the same place. Chemotherapy is usually be given before or after the surgery.


Treatment for pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma

With pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma, usually the treatment is surgery and then radiotherapy. The radiotherapy aims to reduce the chance of the tumour coming back in the same place. Chemotherapy tends not to work very well and so is not usually used.


More information about sarcoma treatment

In the soft tissue sarcoma section, you can find more information about surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy for sarcoma.

On our clinical trials database you can find out about UK trials for rhabdomyosarcoma.

Children's impact statement - Soft tissue sarcoma

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Updated: 28 June 2013