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Childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma Treatment (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version
Last Modified: 05/02/2014

Previously Untreated Childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma

Local Control Management: Surgery
Local Control Management: Radiation Therapy (RT)
Local Control Management with Surgery and RT by Primary Sites of Disease
        Head and neck
        Extremity sites
        Truncal sites
        Genitourinary system
        Unusual primary sites
        Metastatic sites
Chemotherapy Treatment Options
         Low-risk patients
        Intermediate-risk patients
        High-risk patients
Current Clinical Trials



Local Control Management: Surgery

In recent years, the predominant site of treatment failure in patients with initially localized rhabdomyosarcoma has been local recurrence. Both surgery and radiation therapy are primarily measures taken to produce local control, but each has risks and benefits. Surgical removal of the entire tumor should be considered initially, but only if major functional/cosmetic impairment will not result.[1] With that proviso, complete resection of the primary tumor with a surrounding margin of normal tissue and sampling possibly involved lymph nodes in the draining nodal basin is recommended. Important exceptions to the rule of normal margins exist (e.g., tumors of the orbit and of the genitourinary region).[2,3] The principle of wide and complete resection of the primary tumor is less applicable to patients known to have metastatic disease at the initial operation, but it is a reasonable concept if easily accomplished.

Patients with microscopic residual tumor after their initial excisional procedure appear to have improved prognoses if a second operative procedure (primary re-excision) to resect the primary tumor bed before beginning chemotherapy can achieve complete removal of the tumor.[4]

Clinical and/or imaging evaluation of regional lymph nodes is an important part of pretreatment staging. Pathologic evaluation of regional nodes is currently required for all patients with extremity primary rhabdomyosarcoma and boys aged 10 years and older with paratesticular rhabdomyosarcoma, because microscopic tumor is often documented even when the nodes are not enlarged. (Refer to the Regional and in-transit lymph nodes section of this summary for more information.)

There is little evidence that debulking surgery (i.e., expected to leave macroscopic residual tumor) improves outcome, compared with biopsy alone.[5][Level of evidence: 2A] Second-look procedures (also known as delayed primary excision) can identify viable tumor that remains after initial chemotherapy; patients with viable tumor had shorter event-free survival (EFS) rates than did those without viable tumor, but there was no effect on overall survival (OS).[6] Thus, the exact role of delayed primary excision remains undefined in rhabdomyosarcoma and is most appropriate if it is anticipated that a complete resection is possible and that the modest reduction in radiation dose will substantially decrease the risk for late effects.

Because rhabdomyosarcoma can arise from multiple sites, surgical care decisions and radiotherapeutic options must be tailored to the specific aspects of each site, and should be discussed with a multidisciplinary team including representatives of those specialties and pediatric oncologists. Surgical management of the more common primary sites is provided in the Local Control Management with Surgery and RT by Primary Sites of Disease section of this summary.

Local Control Management: Radiation Therapy (RT)

Only 15% of patients present with Group I, completely resected disease, so RT is used in the majority of cases.

RT is an effective method for achieving local control of the tumor for patients with microscopic or gross residual disease after biopsy, initial surgical resection, or chemotherapy. Patients with completely resected embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma (Group I) do well without RT.[7] An earlier study of Group I patients with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma and undifferentiated soft tissue sarcoma found that omission of RT was followed by decreased local control.[8] A subsequent review of patients with only alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma found that the improvement in outcome with RT did not reach statistical significance for patients with Stage 1 and 2 tumors. There were very few patients (n = 4) with large tumors (Stage 3, >5 cm) who did not receive RT, but their outcome was poor.[9][Level of evidence: 3iiiDii]

In more than 50% of Group II rhabdomyosarcoma patients, local recurrence was due to noncompliance with guidelines or omission of RT.[10] A review of European trials conducted by the German Cooperative Weichteilsarkom Studien (CWS) Group between 1981 and 1998, in which RT was omitted for some Group II patients, demonstrated a benefit to using RT as a component of local tumor control for all Group II patient subsets, as defined by tumor histology, tumor size, and tumor site.[11]

The predominant type of relapse for patients with Group III disease is local failure. Patients with tumor-involved regional lymph nodes at diagnosis also have a higher risk of local and distant failure than do patients whose lymph nodes are uninvolved.[12] As with the surgical management of patients with rhabdomyosarcoma, recommendations for RT depend on the site of primary tumor, the postsurgical (if performed) amount of residual disease (none vs. microscopic vs. macroscopic), and the presence of involved lymph nodes.

For optimal care of pediatric patients undergoing radiation treatments, it is imperative to have available a radiation oncologist, radiation technicians, and nurses who are experienced in treating children. An anesthesiologist may be necessary to sedate and immobilize young patients. Computerized treatment planning with a 3-dimensional planning system should be available. Techniques to deliver radiation specifically to the tumor while sparing normal tissue (e.g., conformal radiation therapy, intensity-modulated radiation therapy [IMRT], proton-beam therapy [charged-particle radiation therapy], or brachytherapy) are appropriate.[13-16]

  • Comparison of proton-beam and IMRT treatment plans has shown that proton-beam radiation can spare more normal tissue adjacent to the targeted volume than IMRT.[17,18] Follow-up remains relatively short, and there are no data available to determine if the reduction in dose to adjacent tissue will result in improved functional outcome or reduce the risk of secondary malignancy. Because patient numbers are small, it is not possible to determine if the risk of local recurrence might be increased by reducing radiation dose in tissue adjacent to the primary tumor.

  • A retrospective review of patients with intermediate-risk rhabdomyosarcoma compared conformal RT and IMRT.[19][Level of evidence: 2B] IMRT improved the target coverage but did not show a difference in local failure rate or EFS.

Standard RT of children with rhabdomyosarcoma includes the following:

Table 5. Radiation Therapy (RT) Dose According to Rhabdomyosarcoma Group, Histology, and Site of Disease (Children's Oncology Group [COG])
Group Treatment 
Group I
EmbryonalNo RT.
Alveolar36 Gy to involved (prechemotherapy) site. The use of RT is under investigation.
Group II
N0 (microscopic residual disease after surgery)36 Gy to involved (prechemotherapy) site.
N1 (resected regional lymph node involvement)41.4 Gy to involved (prechemotherapy) site and nodes.
Group III
Orbital and nonorbital tumors50.4 Gy with volume reduction after 36 Gy if excellent response to chemotherapy and noninvasive pushing tumors; no volume reduction for invasive tumors.
Group IV
As for other groups and including all metastatic sites, if safe and possible. Exception: lung (pulmonary metastases) treated with 15 Gy if aged 6 years or older, 12 Gy if younger than 6 years.

  • The RT dose depends predominantly on the amount of residual disease, if any, after the primary surgical resection. In general, patients with microscopic residual disease (Group II) receive RT to 36 Gy if they do not have involved lymph nodes and 41 Gy in the presence of involved nodes.[8,20] Low-risk patients (embryonal histology and favorable sites with microscopic residual disease) treated on a COG study had local control with 36 Gy, which was comparable to historic controls who received 41.4 Gy.[21] IRS-II patients with gross residual disease (Group III) who received 40 Gy to more than 50 Gy had locoregional relapse rates greater than 30% but higher doses of radiation (>60 Gy) were associated with unacceptable long-term toxic effects.[22,23] Group III patients on the IRS-IV standard treatment arm received 50.4 Gy, with 5-year progression-free survival of 55% to 75%.[24] Experience supports using a somewhat reduced dose of RT in patients with Group III disease who have delayed gross total resection with negative margins. In the recent COG-D9602 study, these patients had a greater than 85% likelihood of local control with 36 Gy.[21]

  • The treated volume should be determined by the extent of tumor at diagnosis before surgical resection and before chemotherapy. A margin of 2 cm is generally used, including clinically involved regional lymph nodes.[8] While the volume irradiated may be modified on the basis of guidelines for normal tissue tolerance, gross residual disease at the time of radiation should receive full-dose treatment.

  • The timing of RT generally allows for chemotherapy to be given for 1 to 3 months before RT is initiated. RT is usually given over 5 to 6 weeks (e.g., 1.8 Gy once per day), during which time chemotherapy is usually modified to avoid the radiosensitizing agents dactinomycin and doxorubicin.

The IRS-IV trial included a randomized study that reported the administration of RT twice a day, 6 to 8 hours apart, at 1.1 Gy per dose (hyperfractionated schedule), 5 days per week, was feasible but difficult to accomplish in small children who required sedation twice daily. Patients with localized, gross residual tumors were randomly assigned to receive conventional, once-daily RT (total dose of 50.4 Gy) versus the twice-daily hyperfractionated schedule (total dose of 59.4 Gy). There was no demonstrated advantage in terms of local control.[25] Conventional RT remains the standard for treating patients who have rhabdomyosarcoma with gross residual disease.[26]

Brachytherapy, using either intracavitary or interstitial implants, is another method of local control and has been used in selected situations for children with rhabdomyosarcoma, especially those with primary tumors at vaginal or vulvar sites [27-31] and selected bladder/prostate sites.[32][Level of evidence: 3iiiA] In small series from one or two institutions, this treatment approach was associated with a high survival rate and with retention of a functional organ or tissue in most patients.[28,33] Other sites, especially head and neck, have also been treated with brachytherapy.[34] Patients with initial Group III disease, who subsequently have microscopic residual disease after chemotherapy with or without delayed surgery are likely to achieve local control with RT at doses of 40 Gy or more.[35]

Very young children (aged ≤36 months) diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma pose a therapeutic challenge because of their increased risk for treatment-related morbidity.[21] As suggested above, in older children, reduced radiation doses may be appropriate if delayed surgery can provide negative margins. However, for infants who are unable to undergo surgical resection, higher doses of RT remain appropriate.[36] Radiation techniques are designed to maximize normal tissue sparing, and should include conformal approaches, often with intensity-modulated techniques.

Local Control Management with Surgery and RT by Primary Sites of Disease

Head and neck

Rhabdomyosarcomas of the orbit should not undergo exenteration, but biopsy is needed for diagnosis.[37,38] Biopsy is followed by chemotherapy and RT, with orbital exenteration reserved for the small number of patients with locally persistent or recurrent disease.[39,40] RT and chemotherapy are the standard of care, with survival in excess of 90% to 95%. For patients with orbital tumors, precautions should be taken to limit the RT dose to the lens and cornea.

If the tumors are nonorbital and cranial parameningeal (arising in the middle ear/mastoid, nasopharynx/nasal cavity, paranasal sinus, parapharyngeal region, or pterygopalatine/infratemporal fossa), a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan with contrast of the primary site and brain should be obtained to check for presence of base-of-skull erosion and possible extension onto or through the dura.[41-43] If skull erosion and/or transdural extension is equivocal, a computed tomography (CT) scan with contrast of the same regions is indicated. Also, if there is any suspicion of extension down the spinal cord, an MRI scan with contrast of the entire cord should be obtained. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) should be examined for malignant cells in all patients with parameningeal tumors. Because complete removal of these tumors is difficult, owing to their location, the initial surgical procedure for these patients is usually only a biopsy for diagnosis.

Nonorbital cranial parameningeal tumors are optimally managed by conformal RT and chemotherapy. Patients with parameningeal disease with intracranial extension in contiguity with the primary tumor, and/or cranial base bone erosion, and/or cranial nerve palsy do not require whole-brain irradiation or intrathecal therapy, unless tumor cells are present in the CSF at diagnosis.[41] Patients should receive RT to the site of primary tumor with a 1.5 cm margin to include the meninges adjacent to the primary tumor and the region of intracranial extension, if present, with a 1.5 cm margin.[42] In a retrospective trial, starting radiation therapy within 2 weeks of diagnosis for patients with signs of meningeal impingement was associated with lower rates of local failure. When no signs of meningeal impingement were present, delay of radiation therapy for more than 10 weeks did not impact local failure rates.[42] A retrospective analysis of 47 patients with parameningeal primary sites suggested that the subgroup of adolescent patients with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (n = 13) might benefit from the addition of prophylactic irradiation (36 Gy) to bilateral cervical nodes.[44][Level of evidence: 3iiDii]

Children who present with tumor cells in the CSF (Stage 4) may or may not have other evidence of diffuse meningeal disease and/or distant metastases. In a review of experience from IRSG Protocols II though IV, eight patients had tumor cells in the CSF at diagnosis; three of four without other distant metastases were alive at 6 to 16 years after diagnosis, as was one of four who had concomitant metastases elsewhere.[45] Patients may also have multiple intraparenchymal brain metastases from a distant primary tumor. They may be treated with central nervous system-directed RT in addition to treatment with chemotherapy/RT for the primary tumor. Spinal RT may also be indicated.[46,47]

For nonparameningeal and nonorbital head and neck tumors, wide excision of the primary tumor (when feasible) and ipsilateral neck lymph node sampling of clinically involved nodes are appropriate.[48] Narrow resection margins (<1 mm) are acceptable because of anatomic restrictions. Cosmetic and functional factors should always be considered, but with modern techniques, complete resection in patients with superficial tumors need not be inconsistent with good cosmetic and functional results. Specialized, multidisciplinary surgical teams also have performed resections of anterior skull-based tumors in areas previously considered inaccessible to definitive surgical management, including the nasal areas, paranasal sinuses, and temporal fossa. These procedures should only be considered, however, in children with recurrent locoregional disease or residual disease after chemotherapy and RT.

For patients with head and neck primary tumors that are considered unresectable, chemotherapy and RT with organ preservation are the mainstay of primary management.[39,43,49-52] Several studies have reported excellent local control in patients with rhabdomyosarcoma of the head and neck treated with IMRT, fractionated stereotactic radiation therapy, or protons and chemotherapy. Further study is needed, but the use of IMRT and chemotherapy in patients with head and neck rhabdomyosarcoma may result in less severe late effects.[53-55]; [56][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]

Extremity sites

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) can be used to spare the bone, yet provide optimal soft tissue coverage, and is used for the management of extremity rhabdomyosarcoma. Complete primary tumor removal from the hand or foot is not feasible in most cases because of functional impairment.[57][Level of evidence: 3iiA] For children presenting with a primary tumor of the hands or feet, COG studies have shown 100% 10-year local control using RT along with chemotherapy, avoiding amputation in these children.[58][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]

Primary re-excision before beginning chemotherapy (i.e., not delayed) may be appropriate in patients whose initial surgical procedure leaves microscopic residual disease that is deemed resectable by a second procedure.[4]

Regional and in-transit lymph nodes

The Soft Tissue Sarcoma Committee of the COG (COG-STS) recommends systematic aggressive axillary node sampling for patients with upper-extremity primary tumors, even with clinically and radiographically negative nodes. The COG-STS also recommends inguinal and femoral triangle node sampling for patients with lower-extremity primary tumors, even with clinically and radiographically negative nodes. If clinically positive nodes are present, biopsy of more proximal nodes is recommended before sampling of the involved nodal region. Sentinel lymph node mapping is employed at some centers to identify the regional nodes that are the most likely to be involved.[59-62] However, the contribution of sentinel lymph node mapping is not yet clearly defined in pediatric patients.

Because of the significant incidence of regional nodal spread in patients with extremity primary tumors (often without clinical evidence of involvement) and because of the prognostic and therapeutic implications of nodal involvement, extensive pretreatment assessment of regional (and possibly in-transit) nodes is warranted.[59,63-66]; [67][Level of evidence: 3iiDi] In-transit nodes are defined as epitrochlear and brachial for upper-extremity tumors and popliteal for lower-extremity tumors. Regional lymph nodes for those tumor sites are axillary/infraclavicular nodes and inguinal/femoral nodes, respectively. In a review of 226 patients with primary extremity rhabdomyosarcoma, 5% had tumor-involved in-transit nodes, and over 5 years, the rate of in-transit node recurrence was 12%. Very few patients (n = 11) underwent in-transit node examination at diagnosis, but five of them, all with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, had tumor-involved nodes. However, the EFS rates were not significantly different among those evaluated initially and those not evaluated initially for in-transit nodal disease.[67]

Truncal sites

The surgical management of patients with lesions of the chest wall or abdominal wall should follow the same guidelines as those used for lesions of the extremities (i.e., wide local excision and an attempt to achieve negative microscopic margins). These resections may require use of prosthetic materials. Very large truncal masses should be biopsied initially. Chemotherapy, with or without RT, is then given. Initial surgery is performed if there is a realistic expectation of achieving negative margins. However, most patients who present with large tumors in these sites have localized disease that becomes amenable to complete resection with negative margins after preoperative chemoradiation therapy and those patients may have excellent long-term survival.[68-71]

Intrathoracic or intra-abdominal sarcomas may not be resectable at diagnosis because of the massive size of the tumor and extension into vital organs or vessels.[72] For patients with initially unresectable retroperitoneal/pelvic tumors, complete surgical removal after chemotherapy, with or without RT, offers a significant survival advantage (73% vs. 34%–44% without removal).[72] The International Society of Pediatric Oncology Malignant Mesenchymal Tumor (SIOP-MMT) group found that RT improved local control in patients with localized pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma whose initial surgical procedure was biopsy only, leaving macroscopic residual tumor. Age older than 10 years and lymph node involvement were unfavorable prognostic factors.[73][Level of evidence: 2A]

With rhabdomyosarcoma of the biliary tree, total resection is rarely feasible and standard treatment includes chemotherapy and RT. Outcome for patients with this primary site is good despite residual disease after surgery. External biliary drains significantly increase the risk of postoperative infectious complications. Thus, external biliary drainage is not warranted.[74]

Patients with rhabdomyosarcoma arising from tissue around the perineum or anus usually have advanced disease. These patients have a high likelihood of regional lymph node involvement, and about half of the tumors have alveolar histology. The current recommendation is to sample the regional lymph nodes. When feasible and without unacceptable morbidity, removing all gross tumor before chemotherapy improves the likelihood of cure. In Intergroup Rhabdomyosarcoma Study Group (IRSG) Protocols I through IV, the OS rate after aggressive therapy for 71 patients with tumors in this location was 49%, best for patients in Stage 2 (small tumors, negative regional nodes), intermediate for those in Stage 3, and worst for those in Stage 4 at diagnosis.[75] However, with the goal of organ preservation, patients with tumors of the perineum/anus are preferentially managed with chemotherapy and RT without aggressive surgery, which may result in loss of sphincter control.

Genitourinary system

Primary sites for childhood rhabdomyosarcoma within the genitourinary system include the paratesticular area, bladder, prostate, kidney, vulva, vagina, and uterus. Specific considerations for the surgical and radiotherapeutic management of tumors arising at each of these sites are discussed in the paragraphs below.[76]

Lesions occurring adjacent to the testis or spermatic cord and up to the internal inguinal ring should be removed by orchiectomy with resection of the spermatic cord, utilizing an inguinal incision with proximal vascular control (i.e., radical orchiectomy).[77] Resection of hemiscrotal skin is required when there is tumor fixation or invasion, or when a previous transscrotal biopsy has been performed. For patients with incompletely removed paratesticular tumors that require RT, temporarily repositioning the contralateral testicle into the adjacent thigh before scrotal radiation therapy may preserve hormone production.[78][Level of evidence: 3iiiC]

Paratesticular tumors have a relatively high incidence of lymphatic spread (26% in IRS-I and IRS-II),[63] and all patients with paratesticular primary tumors should have thin-cut abdominal and pelvic CT scans with contrast to evaluate nodal involvement. For patients who have Group I disease, are younger than 10 years, and in whom CT scans show no evidence of lymph node enlargement, retroperitoneal node biopsy/sampling is unnecessary, but a repeat CT scan every 3 months is recommended.[79,80] For patients with suggestive or positive CT scans, retroperitoneal lymph node sampling (but not formal node dissection) is recommended, and treatment is based on the findings of this procedure.[3,26,81] A staging ipsilateral retroperitoneal lymph node dissection is currently required for all children 10 years and older with paratesticular rhabdomyosarcoma on COG-STS studies. However, node dissection is not routine in Europe for adolescents with resected paratesticular rhabdomyosarcoma. Many European investigators rely on radiographic rather than surgical-pathologic assessment of retroperitoneal lymph node involvement.[77,79] It appears, however, that the ability of the CT scan to predict the presence of lymph node involvement needs further study.[82]

Bladder preservation is a major goal of therapy for patients with tumors arising in the bladder and/or prostate. Two important reviews provide information about the historical, current, and future treatment approaches for patients with bladder and prostate rhabdomyosarcomas.[83,84]

In rare cases, the tumor is confined to the dome of the bladder and can be completely resected. Otherwise, to preserve a functional bladder in patients with gross residual disease, chemotherapy and RT have been used to reduce tumor bulk,[85,86] followed, when necessary, by a more limited surgical procedure such as partial cystectomy.[87] Early experience with this approach was disappointing, with only 20% to 40% of patients with bladder/prostate tumors remaining alive and with functional bladders 3 years after diagnosis (3-year OS was 70% in IRS-II).[87,88] The later experience from IRS-III and IRS-IV, which used more intensive chemotherapy and RT, showed 55% of patients alive with functional bladders at 3 years postdiagnosis, with 3-year OS exceeding 80%.[86,89,90] Patients with a primary tumor of the bladder/prostate who present with a large pelvic mass resulting from a distended bladder caused by outlet obstruction at diagnosis receive RT to a volume defined by imaging studies after initial chemotherapy to relieve outlet obstruction. This approach to therapy remains generally accepted, with the belief that more effective chemotherapy and RT will continue to increase the frequency of bladder salvage.

The initial surgical procedure in most patients consists of a biopsy, which often can be performed using ultrasound guidance or cystoscopy, or by a direct-vision transanal route. In selected cases in one series, bladder-conserving surgery plus brachytherapy for boys with prostate or bladder-neck rhabdomyosarcoma led to excellent survival, bladder preservation, and short-term functional results.[32][Level of evidence: 3iiiB] For patients with biopsy-proven, residual malignant tumor after chemotherapy and RT, appropriate surgical management may include partial cystectomy, prostatectomy, or exenteration (usually approached anteriorly with preservation of the rectum). Very few studies have objective long-term assessments of bladder function, and urodynamic studies are important to obtain accurate evaluation of bladder function.[91]

In patients who have been treated with chemotherapy and RT for rhabdomyosarcoma arising in the bladder/prostate region, the presence of well-differentiated rhabdomyoblasts in surgical specimens or biopsies obtained after treatment does not appear to be associated with a high risk of recurrence and is not an indication for a major surgical procedure such as total cystectomy.[89,92,93] One study suggested that in patients with residual bladder tumors with histologic evidence of maturation, additional courses of chemotherapy should be given before cystectomy is considered.[89] Surgery should be considered only if malignant tumor cells do not disappear over time after initial chemotherapy and RT. Because of very limited data, it is unclear whether this situation is analogous for patients with rhabdomyosarcoma arising in other parts of the body.

The kidney is occasionally the primary site for rhabdomyosarcoma; six cases were identified from among 5,746 eligible patients enrolled on IRSG protocols. The tumors were large (mean widest diameter, 12.7 cm), and anaplasia was present in four (67%) patients. Three patients with grossly complete tumor removal at diagnosis survived; the three with incomplete removal and gross or metastatic disease died of infection or metastatic tumor.[94]

For patients with genitourinary primary tumors of the vulva/vagina/uterus, the initial surgical procedure is usually a vulvar or transvaginal biopsy. Initial radical surgery is not indicated for rhabdomyosarcoma of the vulva/vagina/uterus.[3] Conservative surgical intervention for vaginal rhabdomyosarcoma, with primary chemotherapy and adjunctive radiation (often brachytherapy) for residual disease (Group II or III), results in excellent disease-free survival.[95,96]

In the COG-ARST0331 study, there was an unacceptably high rate of local recurrences in girls with Group III vaginal tumors who did not receive RT.[96][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii] Therefore, the COG-STS recommends that RT be administered to patients with residual viable vaginal tumor, beginning at week 24.

Because of the smaller number of patients with uterine rhabdomyosarcoma, it is difficult to make a definitive treatment decision, but chemotherapy with or without RT is also effective.[95,97] Twelve of 14 girls with primary cervical embryonal (mainly botryoid) rhabdomyosarcoma were disease-free after VAC (vincristine, dactinomycin, and cyclophosphamide) chemotherapy and conservative surgery. Of note, two girls also had a pleuropulmonary blastoma and another had Sertoli-Leydig cell tumor.[98] Exenteration is usually not required for primary tumors at these sites, but if needed, it may be done, with rectal preservation possible in most cases.

Girls with genitourinary primary tumors should have their ovaries shielded or possibly moved, in an effort to preserve fertility when they are receiving RT to the lower abdomen and pelvis.

Unusual primary sites

Rhabdomyosarcoma occasionally arises in sites other than those discussed above. Patients with localized primary rhabdomyosarcoma of the brain can occasionally be cured using a combination of tumor excision, RT, and chemotherapy.[99][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]

Patients with laryngeal rhabdomyosarcoma will usually be treated with chemotherapy and RT after biopsy in an attempt to preserve the larynx.[100]

Patients with diaphragm tumors often have locally advanced disease that is not grossly resectable initially because of fixation to adjacent vital structures such as the lung, great vessels, pericardium, and/or liver. In such circumstances, chemotherapy and RT should be initiated after diagnostic biopsy, with the intent to consider removal of residual tumor at a later date if feasible.[101]

Two well-documented cases of primary ovarian rhabdomyosarcoma (one Stage III and one Stage IV) have been reported to supplement the eight previously reported patients. These two patients were alive at 20 and 8 months after diagnosis. Six of the previously reported eight patients had died of their disease.[102][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii] Treatment with combination chemotherapy followed by removal of the residual mass or masses can sometimes be successful.[102]

Metastatic sites

Primary resection of metastatic disease at diagnosis (Stage 4, M1, Group IV) is rarely indicated.

The CWS Group reviewed four consecutive trials and identified 29 patients with M1 embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma and metastasis limited to the lung at diagnosis. They reported approximately 38% 5-year EFS for the cohort and did not identify any benefit for local control of pulmonary metastasis, whether by lung irradiation (n = 9), pulmonary metastasectomy (n = 3), or no targeted pulmonary therapy (n = 19).[103][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]

The IRSG reviewed 46 IRS-IV (1991–1997) patients with metastatic disease at diagnosis confined to the lungs. Only 11 (24%) had a biopsy of the lung, including six at the time of primary diagnosis. They were compared with 234 patients with single non-lung metastatic sites or multiple other sites of metastases. The lung-only patients were more likely to have embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma and parameningeal primary tumors than the larger group of 234 patients, and were less likely to have regional lymph node disease at diagnosis. Failure-free survival (FFS) and OS rates at 4 years were 35% and 42%, respectively, better than for those with two or more sites of metastases (P = .005 and .002, respectively). Being younger than 10 years at diagnosis was also a favorable prognostic factor. Lung irradiation was recommended by the protocols for the lung-only group, but many did not receive it. Those who did receive lung irradiation had better FFS and OS at 4 years than those who did not (P = .01 and P = .039, respectively).[104][Level of evidence: 3iiiB]

Chemotherapy Treatment Options

All children with rhabdomyosarcoma should receive chemotherapy. The intensity and duration of the chemotherapy are dependent on the Risk Group assignment.[105] See Table 4 in the Stage Information section for more information about Risk Groups.

Adolescents treated with therapy for rhabdomyosarcoma experience less hematologic toxicity and more peripheral nerve toxicity than do younger patients.[106]

Low-risk patients

Standard treatment options

  • Low-risk patients have localized (nonmetastatic) embryonal histology tumors in favorable sites that have been grossly resected (Groups I and II), embryonal tumors in the orbit that have not been completely resected (Group III), and localized tumors in an unfavorable site that have been grossly resected (Groups I and II). (See Table 3 in the Stage Information section of this summary.) Certain subgroups of low-risk patients have achieved survival rates higher than 90% when treated with a two-drug chemotherapy regimen that includes vincristine and dactinomycin (VA) plus RT for residual tumor. See Table 6 below.
Table 6. Characteristics of Low-Risk Patients with High Survival Rates Using Two-Drug Therapy with Vincristine and Dactinomycin With or Without Radiation Therapy (Subset A)
Site Size Group Nodes 
N0 = absence of nodal spread.
FavorableAnyI, IIAN0
OrbitalAnyI, II, IIIN0
Unfavorable≤5 cmIN0

The COG-D9602 study stratified 388 patients with low-risk embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma into two groups.[107] Treatment for subgroup A patients (n = 264; Stage 1 Group I/IIA, Stage 2 Group I, and Stage 1 Group III orbit) consisted of VA with or without RT for 48 weeks. Patients with subgroup B disease (n = 78; Stage 1 Group IIB/C, Stage I Group III nonorbit, Stage 2 Group II, and Stage 3 Group I/II disease) received VAC (total cumulative dose of 28.6 g/m2). Radiation doses were reduced from 41.4 Gy to 36 Gy for Stage 1 Group IIA patients and from 50 Gy or 59 Gy to 45 Gy for Group III orbit patients. For subgroup A patients, the 5-year overall FFS rate was 88% and the OS rate was 97%. For subgroup B patients, the 5-year FFS rate was 85% and the OS rate was 93%.

Other subgroups of low-risk patients have achieved survival rates of at least 90% with three-drug chemotherapy with VAC (total cyclophosphamide dose of 28.6 g/m2) plus RT for residual tumor. See Table 7 below.

Table 7. Characteristics of Low-Risk Patients with High Survival Rates Using Three-Drug Therapy with Vincristine, Dactinomycin, and Cyclophosphamide With or Without Radiation Therapy (Subset B)
Site Size Group Nodes 
N0 = absence of nodal spread; N1 = presence of regional nodal spread beyond the primary site.
Favorable (orbital or non-orbital)AnyIIB, IIC, IIIN0, N1
Unfavorable≤5 cmIIN0
Unfavorable>5 cmI, IIN0, N1

Intermediate-risk patients

Standard treatment options

  • In IRS-IV, intermediate-risk patients had survival rates at 3 years from 84% to 88%. This category includes patients with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma at unfavorable sites (Stages 2 and 3) with gross residual disease (i.e., Group III), and patients with nonmetastatic alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (Stages 2 and 3) at any site (Groups I, II, and III). The IRS-IV study randomly assigned intermediate-risk patients to receive either standard VAC therapy or one of two other chemotherapy regimens using ifosfamide as the alkylating agent. Outcomes with VAC were as good as the other two regimens and easier to administer. Because there was no difference in outcome between these three treatments, confirming VAC as the standard chemotherapy combination for children with intermediate-risk rhabdomyosarcoma.[26]

    A comparison of survival in patients with tumors of embryonal histology treated on IRS-IV (who received higher doses of alkylating agents) compared with similar patients treated on IRS-III (who received lower doses of alkylating agents) suggested a benefit with the use of higher doses of cyclophosphamide for certain groups of intermediate-risk patients. These included patients with tumors at favorable sites and positive lymph nodes, patients with gross residual disease, or patients with tumors at unfavorable sites who underwent grossly complete resections, but not patients with unresected embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma at unfavorable sites.[108] For other groups of intermediate-risk patients, an intensification of cyclophosphamide was feasible but did not improve outcome.[109]

  • The COG has also evaluated whether the addition of topotecan and cyclophosphamide to standard VAC therapy improved outcome for children with intermediate-risk rhabdomyosarcoma. Topotecan was prioritized for evaluation on the basis of its preclinical activity in rhabdomyosarcoma xenograft models as well as its single-agent activity in previously untreated children with rhabdomyosarcoma, particularly those with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.[110,111] Furthermore, the combination of cyclophosphamide and topotecan demonstrated substantial activity both in patients with recurrent disease and in newly diagnosed patients with metastatic disease.[112,113] The COG-D9803 clinical trial for newly diagnosed patients with intermediate-risk disease randomly assigned patients to receive either VAC therapy or VAC therapy with additional courses of topotecan and cyclophosphamide. However, patients who received topotecan and cyclophosphamide fared no better than those treated with VAC alone; 4-year FFS was 73% with VAC and 68% with VAC/VTC (vincristine, topotecan, and cyclophosphamide).[112][Level of evidence: 1iiA] Thus, VAC is still the standard form of multiagent chemotherapy for intermediate-risk patients.

  • In a limited-institution pilot study, a combination of vincristine/doxorubicin/cyclophosphamide (VDC) alternating with ifosfamide/etoposide (IE) was used to treat patients with intermediate-risk rhabdomyosarcoma. The relative efficacy of this approach versus the standard approach would require further investigation.[114][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]

  • Approximately 20% of Group III patients will have a residual mass at the completion of therapy. The presence of a residual mass had no adverse prognostic significance.[115,116] Aggressive alternative therapy may not be warranted for rhabdomyosarcoma patients with a residual mass at the end of planned therapy. For Group III patients, best response to initial chemotherapy had no impact on overall outcome.[116] While induction chemotherapy is commonly administered for 9 to 12 weeks, 2.2% of patients with intermediate-risk rhabdomyosarcoma on the IRS-IV and COG-D9803 studies were found to have early disease progression and did not receive their planned course of RT.[117] COG investigators are now studying the value of early administration of RT in patients of intermediate risk.

  • In a European trial (SIOP-MMT-95) of 457 patients with incompletely resected embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, undifferentiated sarcoma, or soft tissue primitive neuroectodermal tumor, the addition of carboplatin, epirubicin, and etoposide to standard ifosfamide, vincristine, and dactinomycin (IVA) therapy did not improve outcome (3-year OS for IVA was 82%; 3-year OS for IVA plus carboplatin, epirubicin, and etoposide was 80%).[118]

High-risk patients

Standard treatment options

  • High-risk patients have metastatic disease in one or more sites at diagnosis (Stage IV). These patients continue to have a relatively poor prognosis (5-year survival rate of 50% or lower) with current therapy, and new approaches to treatment are needed to improve survival in this group.[104,119,120] Two retrospective studies have looked at patients who present with metastases limited to the lungs;[103,104] results are summarized in the Metastatic sites section of this summary.

    A pooled analysis of 788 high-risk rhabdomyosarcoma patients treated with multiagent chemotherapy (all regimens used cyclophosphamide or ifosfamide plus dactinomycin and vincristine with or without additional chemotherapeutic agents), followed by local therapy (surgery with or without RT) within 3 to 5 months of starting chemotherapy, identified several adverse prognostic factors. These were age younger than 1 year, age 10 years or older, unfavorable primary site, bone and/or bone marrow involvement, and three or more different metastatic sites. The EFS rate at 3 years was 50% for patients without any of these adverse prognostic factors. The EFS rates were 42% for patients with one adverse prognostic factor, 18% for patients with two adverse prognostic factors, 12% for patients three adverse prognostic factors, and 5% for patients with four adverse prognostic factors (P < .0001).[121][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]

    The standard systemic therapy for children with metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma is the three-drug combination of VAC. Despite many clinical trials attempting to improve outcome by adding additional agents to standard VAC chemotherapy (or substituting new agents for one or more components of VAC chemotherapy), to date, no chemotherapy regimens have been shown to be more effective than VAC, including the following:

    • In the IRS-IV study, three combinations of drug pairs were studied in an up-front window—IE, vincristine/melphalan (VM),[122] and ifosfamide/doxorubicin (ID).[123] These patients received VAC after the up-front window agents were evaluated at weeks 6 and 12. OS rates for patients treated with IE and ID were comparable (31% and 34%, respectively) and better than for those treated with VM (22%).[123] However, results with VAC chemotherapy for Stage IV rhabdomyosarcoma in the North American experience are similar.

    • Results from a phase II window trial of patients with metastatic disease at presentation and treated with topotecan and cyclophosphamide showed activity for this two-drug combination, but survival was not different from that seen with previous regimens.[112,113] An up-front window trial of topotecan in previously untreated children and adolescents with metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma gave similar results.[111]

    • Irinotecan and irinotecan with vincristine [124] have also been evaluated as up-front windows by the COG-STS; the response rates were better when irinotecan was administered with vincristine than without it, but again, survival in a preliminary analysis was not improved over prior experience.[124]

    • In a French study, 20 patients with metastatic disease at diagnosis received window therapy with doxorubicin for two courses. Thirteen of 20 patients responded to therapy, and four patients had progressive disease.[125]

    • A study from the International Society of Pediatric Oncology (SIOP) demonstrated continued poor outcome for patients with high-risk features such as age 10 years and older or bone/bone marrow involvement. This study compared a standard six-drug combination followed by vincristine, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide (VDC) maintenance versus an arm that evaluated a window of single-agent doxorubicin or carboplatin followed by sequential high-dose monotherapy courses including cyclophosphamide, etoposide, and carboplatin followed by maintenance VAC. No benefit was seen for the high-dose therapy arm.[126]

Alternative Therapies
  • High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue has been evaluated in a limited number of patients with rhabdomyosarcoma.[127,128]; [129][Level of evidence: 3iiiA] The use of high-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue has failed to improve the outcome of patients with newly diagnosed or recurrent rhabdomyosarcoma.

Treatment options under clinical evaluation

The following is an example of a national and/or institutional clinical trial that is currently being conducted. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

  • The NCI's intramural Pediatric Oncology Branch conducted a study of consolidative immunotherapy incorporating T-cell reconstitution followed by a dendritic-cell plus tumor-peptide vaccine that was given with little toxicity to patients with translocation-positive metastatic or recurrent Ewing sarcoma and alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.[130][Level of evidence: 3iiiA]

Current Clinical Trials

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with previously untreated childhood rhabdomyosarcoma. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.

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