Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare cancer in the connective tissues that occurs when cells in the skeletal muscle mutate and begin to divide rapidly and uncontrollably. While this type of growth can be found anywhere in the body, it is most commonly seen in the head and neck, as well as wrapped around the intestines or other organs. The good news is that it rarely gets embedded in organs, and when the growth is on the surface, it is easily removed in surgery.
Rhabdomyosarcoma presents in young children ages 1 to 5 as embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma and in teenagers ages 15 to 19 as alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma. In either case, the cancer cells look like embryonic cells in various stages of growth. It’s almost as if the skeletal muscle tissue didn’t get the chemical message to tell it to stop growing, so it keeps dividing and producing proteins that it shouldn’t. Data collected at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital reveals that rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common soft tissue growth in children, accounting for about 3% of all cancers common to children. Finding this cancer in an adult is possible, but even more rare.
To screen a patient for this type of sarcoma, the doctor takes a blood sample, a muscle tissue biopsy, and a bit of bone marrow. He or she will look to see how the skeletal muscle cells are differentiating. The pattern of cells should be regular, indicating that growth occurred at a steady, normal rate. The blood and bone marrow is tested independently to identify proteins and other chemical levels in the body. Specifically, the doctor checks for the myo D1 protein that is normally only found in developing muscle tissue. Healthy cells stop producing myo D1 when they mature and become part of the functioning nervous system. The protein is therefore a chemical flag or marker for the rhabdomyosarcoma. In the early stages, it is easy to misdiagnose this cancerous growth as a pseudotumor that is resistant to steroids.
As with most cancers, this soft tissue cancer is treated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These methods can drain the patient of energy, but only temporarily, and the end results are worth the discomfort during the treatment itself. If a localized tumor is found, a doctor can generally remove it surgically, or amputate as necessary. Rehabilitation can be slow, as new muscle tissue does not grow in quickly. Surgery often greatly increases the survival rate of rhabdomyosarcoma patients, and multiple surgeries are usually not needed because the doctor can remove all of the cancerous tissue on the first try.
If the cancer is caught before it has time to spread very far, surgery for tumor removal followed by a few radiation sessions gives patients the best chance of a healthy future. Even in patients where the cancerous growth has metastasized, the chance of long-term survival is high. An estimated 70% of children with localized forms of this cancer have survived to lead a normal adult life.
Despite the good odds for recovery, having a child who is diagnosed with cancer is scary and stressful. Luckily, research has taught us a lot about rhabdomyosarcoma and your doctor can talk to you to explain the details and address your concerns. Children's hospitals around the country see many young cancer patients and provide them with incredible treatment and care. Your insurance should cover the bulk of your medical expenses, and you may qualify for further assistance through the Children’s Ward at your local hospital. Overall, you should be confident in the outlook for rhabdomyosarcoma patients and focus your energy on comforting your child and keeping him or her calm and comfortable.