Although neuroblastoma is relatively rare, it is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in infants and young children. In many cases, the malignancy develops before birth in the abdominal adrenal glands, which produce hormones that regulate many vital bodily functions, such as breathing and digestion. Neuroblastoma can also originate in nerve cells in the spine, neck or chest.
Why Does Neuroblastoma Develop?
Like many other types of cancer, neuroblastoma begins with a genetic mutation that allows healthy cells to grow uncontrollably. The accumulating abnormal cells then bind together and form a tumor.
Specifically, neuroblastoma originates in immature nerve cells (neuroblasts) during fetal development. As a fetus matures, most neuroblasts develop into nerve cells and fibers. Usually, any neuroblasts that remain after birth either eventually mature or disappear. In some cases, however, the remaining neuroblasts form a tumor.
Researchers continue to explore possible triggers of the initial genetic mutation that leads to the development of neuroblastoma. In most cases, the cause is unknown.
Recognizing the Signs of Neuroblastoma
Neuroblastoma symptoms can vary depending on the site of the tumor. Some common signs include:
- A palpable lump in the abdomen, pelvis, neck or chest
- Pale skin and anemia
- Loss of appetite, diarrhea or constipation
- Bulging eyes, drooping eyelids, small pupils or dark circles under the eyes
- Wheezing, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
- Pain in the stomach, back, legs or bones
- Impaired balance and coordination
The Diagnostic Process
To determine the cause of neuroblastoma symptoms in a child, a physician will typically perform a physical examination and order one or more diagnostic tests, such as:
- A urinalysis
- Blood work Imaging studies
If the results of preliminary testing point to a neuroblastoma diagnosis, the physician may follow up with a tissue biopsy or a bone marrow aspiration to check for cancerous cells.
Does Neuroblastoma Always Require Treatment?Neuroblastoma treatment can vary depending on the child’s age and the location, stage and risk category of the tumor. Common options include:
- Traditional chemotherapy
- Radiation therapy
- Autologous stem cell transplantation
Because some forms of neuroblastoma resolve on their own, a wait-and-watch approach may be appropriate for an otherwise healthy patient with a low-risk tumor.
The experienced neuro-oncology specialists at Tampa General Hospital provide comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment for neuroblastoma and other tumors of the brain, spine and peripheral nervous system. Due in part to our extensive experience in treating complex neural tumors, TGH was named a High-Performing Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery by U.S. News & World Report.