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Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS)

About RMS

Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS or "rhabdo") is a cancerous tumor that develops in the body's soft tissues, usually the muscles. It can affect the head, neck, bladder, vagina, arms, legs, trunk, or just about any body part. Cells from these tumors are often fast growing and can spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

RMS is the most common type of soft-tissue cancer in children. Kids can develop it at any age, but it's most common in those between 2 and 6 years old and 15 and 19 years old. Boys tend to be affected more often than girls.

Treatment of RMS usually includes chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. With early detection and timely treatment, most kids make a full recovery.

Types of Tumors

The two main types of RMS in kids are:

  1. Embryonal RMS: This tumor usually develops in the head and neck area, genitals, or urinary tract. It usually occurs in kids younger than 6. Although it's considered an aggressive (fast growing) type of tumor, it usually responds well to treatment.
  2. Alveolar RMS: This type, which is most likely to occur during the teen years, most often affects the arms or legs, chest, or abdomen. It, too, is fast growing but often more difficult to treat. Most kids with this type of tumor need intensive treatment.


The cause of RMS is unclear, but doctors know that certain medical conditions can make some children more likely to develop rhabdomyosarcoma. These include genetic conditions such as:

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms generally depend on the size and location of the tumor. Sometimes a lump may be apparent on a child's body and there may be painful swelling. Other times, the tumor may be so deep within the body that it produces few if any symptoms.

When in the head, RMS may cause headaches, bulging of the eye, or a droopy eyelid. In the urinary system, it may lead to problems with urination and bowel movements, or blood in the urine or stool. If a muscle tumor is pressing on a nerve, there may be tingling or weakness in that area.


If a doctor suspects a child has RMS or another soft-tissue tumor, he or she will perform a thorough physical exam in addition to these tests:


Treatment of RMS and other soft-tissue tumors depends on staging. The staging classification system (usually using Roman numerals I-IV) helps doctors determine how far the cancer has progressed. It takes into account things like the size of the tumor (or tumors), how deeply the tumor has penetrated an organ, and whether the tumor has spread to nearby or distant organs.

This information, in addition to other factors (like the type of tumor and the child's age and overall heath) helps doctors develop treatment plans that may include the following options, in combination or alone:


Being told that a child has cancer can be a terrifying experience, and the stress of cancer treatment can be overwhelming for any family.

Although you might feel like it at times, you're not alone. To find out about support that may be available to you or your child, talk to your doctor, a hospital social worker, or child life specialist. Many resources are available that can help you get through this difficult time.

Reviewed by: Andrew W. Walter, MD
Date reviewed: March 2013

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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