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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Can rhabdomyosarcoma be found early?

At this time, there are no widely recommended screening tests for rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS). (Screening is testing for a disease such as cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms.)

Still, some cases of RMS can be found at an early stage because they start in parts of the body where they are noticed quickly (see “How is rhabdomyosarcoma diagnosed?” for a list of common symptoms). For example, small tumors that start in the muscles behind the eye often cause the eye to bulge out. Tumors in the nasal cavity often cause nasal congestion, nosebleeds, or bloody mucus. When small lumps form near the surface of the body, children or their parents often see them or feel them.

Many cases of RMS start in the bladder or other parts of the urinary tract and can cause trouble emptying the bladder or lead to blood in the urine or in diapers. Tumors starting around the testicles in young boys can cause painless swelling that is often noticed early by a parent. In girls with RMS of the vagina, the tumor may cause bleeding or a mucus-like discharge from the vagina.

It may be harder to recognize tumors in the arms, legs, and trunks of older children because they often have pain or bumps from sports or play injuries.

There are many other causes of the symptoms above, and most of them are not serious, but it is important to have them checked by a doctor. This includes having your child’s doctor check out any pain, swelling, or lumps that grow quickly or don’t go away after a couple of weeks.

About 1 in 3 of these cancers is found early enough so that all of the visible cancer can be completely removed by surgery. But even when this happens, very small tumors (which cannot be seen, felt, or detected by imaging tests) may have already spread to other parts of the body.

Families known to carry inherited conditions that raise the risk of RMS (listed in “What are the risk factors for rhabdomyosarcoma?”) or that have several family members with cancer (particularly childhood cancers) should talk with their doctors about the possible need for more frequent checkups. It is not common for RMS to run in families, but close attention to possible early signs of cancer may help find it early, when treatment is most likely to be successful.

Last Medical Review: 08/13/2013
Last Revised: 08/13/2013