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Get information about the different types of rhabdomyosarcoma and find out what treatment to expect.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of soft tissue sarcoma – a cancer that starts in muscles. It can occur in children or adults.

There are 3 distinct types of rhabdomyosarcoma:

  • embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma
  • alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma 
  • pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma

The response to treatment varies according to the type you have.

Overview of treatment

If it is possible to remove the tumour, you are likely to have surgery. 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 you have embryonal or alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma you are likely to have chemotherapy before or after surgery. 

When surgery is not possible for you

Radiotherapy may be used with chemotherapy to try to get rid of the tumour, if surgery is not possible. Sometimes surgery to remove rhabdomyosarcoma may have a large effect on the way you look. In cases like this, where surgery would be very disfiguring, your doctor may offer you radiotherapy instead of surgery. 

Types and treatment

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

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.

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

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.

This type of rhabdomyosarcoma usually occurs in adults and in the arms or legs.

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. 


Coping with a diagnosis of a rare cancer can be especially difficult, both practically and emotionally. Being well informed about your cancer and its treatment can make it easier to make decisions and cope with what happens.

Talking to other people

Talking to other people who have the same thing can also help.

Our discussion forum Cancer Chat is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.

The Rare Cancer Alliance offer support and information to people affected by rare cancers.

Last reviewed: 
27 Feb 2015
  • Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • Textbook of Uncommon Cancer (4th Edition)

    D Raghavan and others

    Wiley - Blackwell, 2012

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