Rhabdomyosarcoma, or RMS, is an aggressive and highly malignant form of cancer that develops from skeletal (striated) muscle cells that have failed to fully differentiate. It is generally considered to be a disease of childhood, as the vast majority of cases occur in those below the age of 18. It is commonly described as one of the small, round, blue cell tumours of childhood due to its appearance on an H&E stain. Despite being a relatively rare cancer, it accounts for approximately 40% of all recorded soft tissue sarcomas. RMS can occur in any site on the body, but is primarily found in the head, neck, orbit, genitourinary tract, genitals, and extremities. There are no clear risk factors for RMS, but the disease has been associated with some congenital abnormalities. Signs and symptoms vary according to tumor site, and prognosis is closely tied to the location of the primary tumor. Common site of metastasis include the lungs, bone marrow, and bones. There are many classification systems for RMS and a variety of defined histological types. Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common type and comprises about 60% of cases. Patient outcomes vary considerably, with 5 years survival rates between 35% and 95% depending on the type of RMS involved, so clear diagnosis is critical for effective treatment and management. Unfortunately, accurate and quick diagnosis is often difficult due to the heterogeneity of RMS tumors and a lack of strong genetic markers of the disease. Treatment usually involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Sixty percent to 70% of newly diagnosed patients with nonmetastatic disease can be cured using this combined approach to therapy. Despite aggressive multimodality treatment, less than 20% of patients with metastatic RMS are able to be cured of their disease.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common soft-tissue sarcoma in children as well as the third most common solid tumor in children. Recent estimates place the incidence of the disease at approximately 4.5 case per 1 million children/adolescents with approximately 250 new cases in the United States each year. RMS is primarily a disease of childhood, with the vast majority of cases occurring in children or adolescents. Two thirds of reported cases occur in children under the age of 10. RMS also occurs slightly more often in males than in females, with a ratio of approximately 1.3-1.5:1. In addition, slightly lower prevalence of the disease has been reported in black and Asian children relative to white children. In most cases, there are no clear predisposing risk factors for the development of RMS. It tends to occur sporadically with no obvious cause. However, RMS has been correlated with familial cancer syndromes and congenital abnormalities including neurofibromatosis type 1, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, cardio-facio-cutaneous syndrome, and Costello syndrome. It has also been associated with parental use of cocaine and marijuana. RMS can occur in almost any soft-tissue site in the body; the most common primary sites are genitourinary (24%), parameningeal (16%), extremity (19%), orbit (9%), other head and neck (10%), and miscellaneous other sites (22%). RMS often presents as a mass, but signs and symptoms can vary widely depending on the site of the primary tumor. Genitourinary tumors may present with hematuria, urinary tract obstruction, and/or a scrotal or vaginal mass. Tumors that arise in the retroperitoneum and mediastrium can become quite large before producing signs and symptoms. Parameningeal tumors may present with cranial nerve dysfunction, symptoms of sinusitis, ear discharge, headaches, and facial pain. Orbital tumors often present with orbital swelling and proptosis. Extremity tumors generally present as a rapidly enlarging, firm mass in the relevant tissue. The cancer's prevalence in the head, face, and neck will often allow for earlier signs of the disease simply due to the obvious nature of tumors in these locations. Despite the varying presentation and typically aggressive nature of the disease, RMS has the potential to be diagnosed and treated early. The fourth IRSG study found that 23% of patients were diagnosed in time for a complete resection of their cancer, and 15% had resection with only minimal remnants of the diseased cells. Given the difficulty in diagnosing rhabdomyosarcoma, definitive classiciation of subsets has proven difficult. As a result, classification systems vary by institute and organization. However, rhabdomyosarcoma can be generally divided into three histological subsets: Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma (ERMS) is the most common histological variant, comprising approximately 60-70% of childhood cases. It is most common in children 0–4 years old, with a maximum reported incidence of 4 cases per 1 million children. ERMS is characterized by spindle-shaped cells with a stromal-rich appearance, and the morphology is similar to the developing muscle cells of a 6-8 week old embryo. Tumors often present in the head and neck as well as the genitourinary track. ERMS also has two defined subtypes, boytroid and spindle cell ERMS, and these subtypes are associated with a favorable prognosis. Subtypes of ERMS Botryoid ERMS is almost always found in mucosal lined organs including the vagina, bladder, and nasopharynx (although presentation in the nasopharynx typically affects older children). It often presents in patients <1 year old as a round, grape-like mass on the affected organ. Histologically, cells of the botryoid variant are defined by a dense tumor layer under an epithelium (cambium layer). Spindle cell rhabdomyosarcoma comprises about 3% of all RMS cases. This subtype is very similar to that of leiomyosarcoma (cancer of the smooth muscle tissue), and it has a fascicular, spindled, and leiomyomatous growth pattern with notable rhabdomyoblastic differentiation . It occurs most commonly in the paratesticular region, and the prognosis for this particular form of RMS is excellent with a reported 5 year survival rate of 95%. Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS) is the second most common type. ARMS comprises approximately 20-25% of RMS-related tumors, and it is equally distributed among all age groups with an incidence of about 1 case per 1 million people ages 0 to 19. For this reason, it is the most common form of RMS observed in young adults and teenagers, who are less prone to the embryonal variant. This type of RMS is characterized by densely-packed, round cells that arrange around spaces similar in shape to pulmonary alveoli, although variants have been discovered without these characteristic alveolar spacings. ARMS tends to form more often in the extremities, trunk, and peritoneum. It is also typically more aggressive than ERMS. Anaplastic (undifferentiated) rhabdomyosarcoma, also known as pleiomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma, is the final variant of RMS recognized in most classification systems. Anaplastic rhabdomyosarcoma is defined by the presence of anaplastic cells with large, lobate hyperchromatic nuclei and multipolar mitotic figures. These tumors display high heterogeneity and extremely poor differentiation. The anaplastic cells may be diffuse or localized, with the diffuse variation correlating to a worse prognosis. It occurs most often in adults, rarely in children, and is often discovered in the extremities. Due to the lack of discernible separation among cancers of this type, clinicians will often label undiagnosed sarcomas with little to no discernible features as anaplastic RMS. It is the most aggressive type of RMS, and will often require intensive treatment. There is also an extremely rare subtype of RMS that has been described as sclerosing rhabdomyosarcoma by Folpe, et al, but it is not a currently recognized subtype by the NCI or WHO. This subtype has characteristic histology involving hyaline sclerosis and pseudovascular development. Its origins are unclear, but some studies have pointed to an association with embryonal RMS. Multiple classification systems have been proposed for guiding management and treatment, and the most recent and widely used classification system is the International Classification of Rhabdomyosarcoma or ICR. It was created by the IRSG in 1995 after their series of four multi-institutional trials aimed at studying the presentation, histology, epidemiology, and treatment of RMS (IRSG I-IV). The ICR system is based on prognostic indicators identified in IRSG I-IV. Pleomorphic rhabdomyosarcoma usually occurs in adults rather than children, and is therefor not included in this system. Sclerosing rhabdomyosarcoma is also not included in this system due to its rare presentation and weak classification schema. Rhabdomyosarcoma is often difficult to diagnosis due to its similarities to other cancers and varying levels of differentiation. It is loosely classified as one of the “small, round, blue-cell cancer of childhood” due to its appearance on an H&E stain. Other cancers that share this classification include neuroblastoma, Ewing sarcoma, and lymphoma, and a diagnosis of RMS requires confident elimination of these morphologically similar diseases. The defining diagnostic trait for RMS is confirmation of malignant skeletal muscle differentiation with myogenesis (presenting as a plump, pink cytoplasm) under light microscopy. Cross striations may or may not be present. Accurate diagnosis is usually accomplished through immunohistochemical staining for muscle-specific proteins such as myogenin, muscle-specific actin, desmin, D-myosin, and myoD1.Myogenin, in particular, has been shown to be highly specific to RMS, although the diagnostic significance of each protein marker may vary depending on the type and location of the malignant cells. The alveolar type of RMS tends to have stronger muscle-specific protein staining. Electron microscopy may also aid in diagnosis, with the presence of actin and myosin or Z bands pointing to a positive diagnosis of RMS. Classification into types and subtypes is accomplished through further analysis of cellular morphology (alveolar spacings, presence of cambium layer, aneuploidy, etc.) as well as genetic sequencing of tumor cells. Some genetic markers, such as the PAX3-FKHR fusion gene expression in alveolar RMS, can aid in diagnosis. Open biopsy is usually required to obtain sufficient tissue for accurate diagnosis. All findings must be considered in context, as no one trait is a definitive indicator for RMS.

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