What are rhabdomyosarcomas?
A rhabdomyosarcoma (or RMS) is a rare form of cancer that occurs in active muscles. Active muscles are the muscles which we control in order to move parts of the body such as the arms and legs. Rhabdomyosarcomas occur most commonly in the following areas:
- The arms and legs.
- The head and neck and spine.
- The bladder, prostate gland and other urinary/reproductive organs.
Rhabdomyosarcomas belong to the sarcoma family, which are a group of cancers that affect muscles, fat and bones. Rhabdomyosarcomas are very rare, with less than 500 cases occurring in the United States every year.
Most rhabdomyosarcomas are diagnosed in children and teens, with more than half of cases occurring in children who are younger than 10 years old. However, rhabdomyosarcoma can also occur in adults.
Types of rhabdomyosarcoma:
Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma (ERMS):
ERMS occurs most commonly in children. It occurs in skeletal muscle, occurring most frequently in the head or neck. The prognosis for ERMS has greatly improved over time, with doctors being able to cure most cases.
Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS):
ARMS usually grows in the arms and legs. The time it takes to grow and spread is a lot less than ERMS, meaning that early treatment is more urgent. Unlike ERMS, ARMS equally affects people of all age groups. It is also a lot more common that ERMS.
Causes and risk factors of rhabdomyosarcoma:
There are several common risk factors associated with rhabdomyosarcoma. A risk factor is something that increases the likelihood of cancer occurring. Risk factors do not guarantee that rhabdomyosarcoma will occur and no risk factors do not guarantee that it won’t.
Common risk factors for rhabdomyosarcoma include:
- Age – Rhabdomyosarcoma occurs most frequently in children under the age of 10. However, it can occur in people of any age.
- Gender – RMS is slightly more common in males than females.
- Neurofibromatosis – Neurofibromatosis is a genetic disorder that causes tumours to form on nerves and other tissues. People who suffer from neurofibromatosis are more likely to be diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma.
- Inherited diseases – Syndromes such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome and Costello syndrome are linked with an increased risk of various cancers, including rhabdomyosarcoma.
Symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma:
Below are some of the most common symptoms associated with rhabdomyosarcoma. The symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma vary greatly depending on the location of the tumour. However, one common thing to look out for is a lump under the skin.
If you or someone close to you is exhibiting these symptoms, it is best to see a doctor as soon as possible. An early diagnosis allows for more effective treatment and reduced risk of cancer spreading.
Common symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma include:
- A lump or swelling – The most common sign of rhabdomyosarcoma is a noticeable lump or swelling. Swelling can appear around the neck, back, arms, legs, chest or groin.
- Bulging eyes – Tumours located around the eyes can cause unusual bulging of the eye. This can cause the person to appear cross-eyed and may affect vision.
- Ear and nose pain – Tumour can form in the sinuses, nose and ears. These can cause pain, bleeding and congestion from the ears and nose.
- Headaches – Tumours around the ears, nose, face and eyes can cause painful headaches.
- Nausea and vomiting – When RMS develops in the abdomen, it can cause nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.
- Blood in urine – When RMS develops around the bladder or genital areas, it can cause blood to appear in the urine. If the tumour is big enough, it may also cause pain while urinating.
How is rhabdomyosarcoma diagnosed?
- Physical examination – When a patient is showing symptoms of cancer like rhabdomyosarcoma, doctors will usually start by performing a physical examination to check for problems or irregularities. This may involve looking at suspected lumps. Doctors may also examine your medical history to look for any potential correlations.
- Imaging tests and scans – Imaging tests may use powerful x-rays, magnetic fields or sound waves to create a digital image of the inside of the body. This can help doctors to learn more about a tumour and determine whether it has spread. Common imaging techniques include CT scans, x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
- Biopsy – A biopsy is a procedure where tissue is removed from a suspected tumour or growth. The tissue sample is then tested in a lab to determine whether it is malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous). Depending on the location of RMS, the tissue may be removed surgically or via a needle.
Treatment options for rhabdomyosarcoma:
There are several available treatments for rhabdomyosarcoma. The availability of these treatments depends on several factors, including the location, stage and spread of the tumour. Each treatment option may come with side effects. For this reason, it is important to weigh up all your options and work with a doctor to find the treatment that is best for you.
Below are some of the most common treatments for rhabdomyosarcoma:
Surgery for rhabdomyosarcoma:
Surgery is usually the first and preferred course of treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma. During surgery, doctors will attempt to remove as much of a tumour as possible while sparing important tissue and organs that surround it.
During surgery, surrounding lymph nodes may be removed so that they can be tested for the spread of cancer. This will help improve the effectiveness of follow-up treatments.
Depending on the tumour’s location, surgery can cause long-lasting side effects. An example of this is when a tumour is removed from the face. Sometimes, removing the tumour will involve cutting vital facial nerves. This can affect the function of facial muscles. Surgeons will do everything they can to preserve the function of surrounding muscles and the potential risks should be explained before surgery takes place.
Chemotherapy for rhabdomyosarcoma:
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to target, destroy or stop the growth of cancer cells. For rhabdomyosarcoma, chemotherapy may be used as a follow-up to surgery so that any remaining traces of cancer can be removed. It may also be used as an alternative to surgery when surgery is not a viable treatment option.
Chemotherapy is usually administered in a series of sessions. This gives the patient’s body time to recover from side effects. Chemotherapy is administered either orally or intravenously (through a drip).
Below are some of the most common side effects associated with chemotherapy. Side effects may vary depending on what drugs are taken.
- Fatigue and tiredness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of hair
- Increased risk of infection
- Easy bruising and/or bleeding
Radiation therapy for rhabdomyosarcoma:
During radiation therapy, high-energy radiation is used to kill cancer cells. The most common form of radiation therapy is external-beam therapy, where a machine points radiation at the area of the tumour.
Radiation therapy is often used in conjunction with surgery. Surgeons will remove as much of the tumour as they can and use radiation therapy to destroy what could not be removed.
Radiation therapy can cause side effects, which include:
- Fatigue and tiredness.
- Red, irritated skin around the target area (similar to sunburn).
- Loss of hair around the targeted area.
- Increased risk of infections.
What support can we give for rhabdomyosarcoma?
Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare cancer, meaning it is not as well known as other forms of cancer. Without a Ribbon is an Australian organisation that provides support for individuals who suffer from rare cancers. We provide a designated platform for Warriors to obtain information specific to their Rare Cancer. We also provide annual opportunities for our Warriors to meet and learn from each other.
If you suffer from a rare cancer such as rhabdomyosarcoma, we can help and support you through your journey thanks to the generous donations we receive. Click the link below to sign up and become a Warrior today!
You can help us with your donation:
Without a Ribbon is a charity that works hard to aid those who suffer from rare cancers. You can help our cause in a variety of ways:
Donations – Without a Ribbon is grateful for every donation received. Giving to Without a Ribbon helps us to provide ongoing support, organise the annual gathering and subsidise the costs of our Warriors attending these conferences.
Sponsorship – If you wish to sponsor our charity, please contact us using this form.
Volunteering – We are always looking for volunteers to help with different aspects of running our charity. If you are looking for volunteer work, please feel free to contact us.