Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that affects around 100 children each year in the UK. It develops from nerve cells called neuroblasts.

Information written and reviewed by Certified Doctors.

Contents

Key Information

What should I do?

If you think you have this condition you should see a doctor within 48 hours.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosing neuroblastoma is not straightforward. Typically, you might have a urine test and one or more types of scan. In addition, you may need to have tissue samples taken from the affected organ(s) and the bone marrow (which is inside the central cavity of bones).

What is the treatment?

If you are diagnosed with a neuroblastoma, your doctor will refer you to an oncologist (cancer doctor), who will treat it according to the severity of the disease.

Your treatment can be one or a combination of the following:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation therapy
  • stem cell transplant
  • immunotherapy.

When to worry?

If you have any of the following symptoms then please see a doctor immediately:

  • listless, unable to wake up
  • difficulty in breathing
  • muscle jerks
  • severe abdominal pain.

Introduction

Neuroblastoma is a rare cancer that affects children. It develops from nerve cells called neuroblasts.

The cancer usually starts in the child’s abdomen (tummy). It often develops in the adrenal glands, the two small glands above the kidneys, and can spread to other areas such as the bones, liver and skin.

The cause is unknown. There are rare cases where children in the same family are affected, but it does not generally run in families.

Who is affected?

Neuroblastoma affects around 100 children each year in the UK. It usually affects children under the age of five, and can occur before a child is born. It is the most common solid tumour in childhood after brain tumours.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms depend on where the cancer is and whether it has spread. It is often hard to diagnose neuroblastoma in the early stages, as initial symptoms are common ones – for example, aches and pains and loss of appetite.

However, the most common symptom when the cancer has developed is a lump or swelling in the child’s abdomen, as this is where the cancer usually starts. It can cause constipation and general discomfort and pain.

Other possible symptoms are:

  • a lump in the child’s neck, which can make them breathless or cause difficulty swallowing
  • bone pain and difficulty walking, if the cancer has affected their bones
  • numbness, weakness or loss of movement in the child’s lower body, if the cancer has affected their spinal cord
  • anaemia, bruising, bleeding and infections, if the cancer has affected their bone marrow
  • bluish lumps in their skin, if the cancer has spread to the skin

Outlook

Because early symptoms are vague, neuroblastoma is often not diagnosed until it has spread around the body (Stage 4).

The outlook is generally better if the child is younger and the cancer is low risk (growing slowly) and at a low stage.

Babies with Stage 4s neuroblastoma who have no symptoms may not need treatment, as the cancer may go away on its own.

With all other stages of neuroblastoma, the tumour is removed by operation. Depending on the stage, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy is sometimes used before surgery to shrink the tumour and after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

It is common for the cancer to return after being treated.

Content supplied by NHS Choices