What is Rhabdomyosarcoma?
Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is a type of cancer called a sarcoma that develops in soft tissues, specifically in certain kinds of muscles. RMS can occur anywhere in the body including the head and neck, urinary or reproductive organs, arms and legs, and other sites including the torso, chest or pelvis.
Although all RMS tumors need to be treated, these types of tumors are looked at through a through a microscope (this is called a histological exam), which helps determine if they are classified as “favorable” or “unfavorable.”
Favorable tumors include embryonal RMS, the most common form of RMS and simplest to treat, in which the cancer cells resemble cells of a 6-8 week embryo, whereas unfavorable (which are more complex, but still treatable) includes a form called alveolar RMS, as well as rarer forms, which are called pleomorphic and undifferentiated RMS.
It is not clear what factors increase the risks for the development of RMS. risk factors for the development of RMS, but children with rare genetic disorders such as Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which is also linked to abnormal growth, or Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which is linked with the prevalence of several cancers, may be at increased risk.
Our approach to rhabdomyosarcoma
The symptoms experienced by the patient usually depend on the site of the tumor. If we suspect that a patient has RMS, we will conduct an ultrasound, CT scan or MRI of the suspected area. We typically follow by conducting a biopsy of the tissue, a process through which we remove a small bit of the muscle tissue to examine with a microscope and confirm the diagnosis.
The appropriate treatment depends on what stage the cancer is in. “Staging” is a way of describing where the cancer is located, if and where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body.
Tests such as a bone scan, PET scan (positron emission tomography) and a bone marrow biopsy, in which a small amount of bone marrow is examined, are necessary to tell how extensive the disease is, whether it is confined to one area or spread throughout the body, and to determine the best treatment.
Typical therapies for RMS include surgery to remove the tumor or tumors, chemotherapy that uses strong medication to attack the cancer cells, and radiation therapy that utilizes high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells.
The Children’s Oncology Group (COG) conducts national clinical trials that are available for children with rhabdomyosarcoma. These trials allow our patients to have access to treatments that might not be available at other centers.