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Risk factors for rhabdomyosarcoma

A risk factor is something that increases the risk of developing cancer. It could be a behaviour, substance or condition. Most cancers are the result of many risk factors. But sometimes rhabdomyosarcoma develops in children who don’t have any of the risk factors described below.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is most common in children younger than 10 years of age, but it can also occur in teens and adults. It is slightly more common in boys than girls.

The following are risk factors for rhabdomyosarcoma. All of the known risk factors are not modifiable. This means that you can’t change them. Until we learn more about these risk factors, there are no specific ways you can reduce the risk.

Risk factors are generally listed in order from most to least important. But in most cases, it is impossible to rank them with absolute certainty.

Known risk factors

Genetic syndromes are diseases or disorders caused by a mutation (change) in one or more genes. There is convincing evidence that having the following genetic syndromes can increase the risk of developing rhabdomyosarcoma.

Li-Fraumeni syndrome

Li-Fraumeni syndrome greatly increases a child’s risk of developing several types of cancer, including rhabdomyosarcoma and other soft tissue sarcomas, a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma, breast cancer, brain tumours and leukemia.

Neurofibromatosis type 1

Neurofibromatosis type 1 (also called von Recklinghausen disease) affects the development and growth of nerve cells (called neurons) and causes tumours to grow on nerves. Children with neurofibromatosis type 1 have a higher risk of developing certain cancers, including rhabdomyosarcoma, brain cancer, leukemia and neuroblastoma.

Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome

Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome affects how different parts of the body grow. Children with this syndrome are born much larger than normal. They grow and gain weight at an unusual rate during childhood. In some children with Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, specific parts of the body may grow unusually large, leading to an asymmetric or uneven appearance. Children with this syndrome have a higher risk for certain cancers, such as rhabdomyosarcoma and Wilms tumour.

Costello syndrome

Costello syndrome affects many parts of the body. Children with Costello syndrome often have delayed development, intellectual disability, a characteristic facial appearance, loose folds of extra skin and unusually flexible joints. They also have a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers, including rhabdomyosarcoma.

Noonan syndrome

Noonan syndrome affects many different parts of the body. Children with this syndrome have a characteristic facial appearance, short stature, heart defects and bleeding problems. Their skeletons don’t develop normally and they have a higher risk for rhabdomyosarcoma.

Unknown risk factors

It isn’t known whether or not the following factors are linked with rhabdomyosarcoma. It may be that researchers can’t show a definite link or that studies have had different results. More research is needed to see if the following are risk factors for rhabdomyosarcoma:

  • high birth weight
  • exposure to drugs, such as cannabis (marijuana) or cocaine, before birth
  • exposure to low doses of radiation from medical tests, such as x-rays or CT scans, before birth

Questions to ask your healthcare team

Ask your child’s healthcare team questions about risks.