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Risk Factors for Rhabdomyosarcoma

A risk factor is anything that affects the chance of having a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors.

Lifestyle-related risk factors such as body weight, physical activity, diet, and tobacco use play a major role in many adult cancers. But these factors usually take many years to influence cancer risk, and they are not thought to play much of a role in cancers that are more common in childhood, including rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS).

Age and sex

RMS is most common in children younger than 10, but it can also develop in teens and adults. It is slightly more common in boys than in girls.

Inherited conditions

Some people have a tendency to develop certain types of cancer because they have inherited changes in their DNA (genes) from their parents. Some rare inherited conditions increase the risk of RMS (and usually some other tumors as well):

  • Members of families with Li-Fraumeni syndrome are more likely to develop sarcomas (including RMS), breast cancer, leukemia, and some other cancers.
  • Children with Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome have a high risk of developing Wilms tumor, a type of kidney cancer, but they are also more likely to develop RMS and some other types of childhood cancer.
  • Neurofibromatosis type 1, also known as von Recklinghausen disease, usually causes multiple nerve tumors (especially in nerves of the skin), but it also increases the risk of RMS.
  • Costello syndrome is very rare. Children with this syndrome have high birth weights but then fail to grow well and are short. They also tend to have a large head. They are prone to develop RMS as well as some other tumors.
  • Noonan syndrome is a condition in which children tend to be short, have heart defects, and can be slower than typical children in developing physical skills and learning things. They are also at higher risk for RMS.

These conditions are rare and account for only a small fraction of RMS cases. But they suggest that the key to understanding RMS might come from studying genes and how they work in very early life to control cell growth and development.

Exposures before birth

Some studies have suggested that being exposed to x-rays before birth might be linked with an increased risk of RMS in young children. Parental use of drugs such as marijuana and cocaine has been suggested as a possible risk factor as well. But the studies that have found these links have been small, and more research is needed to see if these factors are truly linked to RMS.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as editors and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Okcu MF, Hicks J. Rhabdomyosarcoma in childhood and adolescence: Epidemiology, pathology, and molecular pathogenesis. UpToDate. Accessed at on May 21, 2018.

Wexler LH, Skapek SX, Helman LJ. Chapter 31: Rhabdomyosarcoma. In: Pizzo PA, Poplack DG, eds. Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2016.

Last Revised: July 16, 2018

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