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Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of soft tissue sarcoma. It starts in muscle cells and can occur in children and adults. A soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer.

There are 3 distinct types of rhabdomyosarcoma. These are:

  • embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma
  • alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma 
  • pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma

Knowing the type of rhabdomyosarcoma helps your specialist decide on the best treatment for you. 

Treatment overview

You are likely to have surgery if it possible to remove the sarcoma. The surgeon removes the cancer 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. 

When surgery is not possible for you

If surgery is not possible you might have radiotherapy and chemotherapy to the sarcoma. 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

Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma is more common in children. It usually occurs in the head and neck region, the bladder or gential area. 

Your treatment depends on where in the body the rhabdomyosarcoma is. Surgery is usually part of the treatment. Chemotherapy tends to work well with this type of sarcoma. You might have chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the cancer, making it easier to remove. This is called neoadjuvant treatment. 

Chemotherapy after surgery aims to help stop the cancer coming back. This is called adjuvant treatment. 

If you can't have surgery 

Some people might not be able to have surgery, because the sarcoma is in a place where it is not possible to completely remove it (such as behind the nose or in the eye socket). In this situation you might have 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.

Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma is usually treated with surgery to remove the sarcoma. Then you have radiotherapy to the area where the sarcoma was.

The radiotherapy aims to reduce the chance of the tumour coming back in the same place. Chemotherapy is usually given before or after surgery.

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

The main treatment is surgery. After surgery you usually have radiotherapy. This aims to lower the risk of sarcoma coming back. 

Research has shown that chemotherapy does not work very well with pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma. Chemotherapy is not part of standard treatment for this type of sarcoma. 


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

Sarcoma UK provides support and information for people affected by soft tissue and bone sarcoma.

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

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.

Last reviewed: 
23 Apr 2018
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