What Is Neuroblastoma?

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Neuroblastoma is a cancerous tumor found in young children and infants, most commonly in children under age 5 and rarely in those older than 10. Approximately 650 children in the United States are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year.

What causes neuroblastoma?

The cause of neuroblastoma is not certain, but researchers believe it forms from neuroblasts, immature nerve cells, that grow abnormally in the fetus due to a genetic mutation. In most neuroblastoma cases, scientists cannot identify the genetic abnormality or its cause.

Neuroblastoma often begins in the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys, but it also can begin in the chest, neck, or pelvis. In more than 70 percent of diagnosed cases, neuroblastoma tumors have metastasized, or spread, to other areas of the body such as the bones, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and liver.

Lisa Diller, pediatric

Lisa Diller, MD is Chief Medical Officer at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center

What are the symptoms of neuroblastoma?

Symptoms of neuroblastoma vary with the location and size of the tumor, and the progression of the cancer, but may include:

  • unexplained fevers, bone pain, or limping
  • a mass in the abdomen, sometimes seen as a swollen abdomen
  • high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and flushing
  • enlarged lymph nodes in the neck
  • weakness or paralysis caused by compression of the spinal cord by a tumor
  • weight loss, or loss of appetite
  • uncontrolled eye or leg movements caused by an autoimmune response to the tumor
  • diarrhea

These symptoms are also associated with other, more common illnesses and do not always indicate neuroblastoma.

How is neuroblastoma diagnosed? 

Doctors may detect neuroblastoma by searching for signs of cancer through a urine test, bone marrow biopsy, or a cytogenetic analysis, which can detect certain changes in chromosomes. Doctors may also use scans to see the primary tumor and determine if it has spread.

Neuroblastoma treatment varies for each patient. Treatment often begins with surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy or radiation. Some patients may have a stem cell transplant, or two transplants for those with high-risk neuroblastoma. Children with relapsed or refractory neuroblastoma may also receive MIBG therapy, which can be used to find neuroblastoma in the body and deliver radiation to fight neuroblastoma cells.

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