A cancerous tumour that develops from nervous tissue, often in the adrenal gland

  • More common under the age of 5
  • Slightly more common in boys
  • May be due to an abnormal gene
  • Lifestyle is not a significant factor

Although rare, neuroblastomas are still the most common cancerous tumours in children under 1 year. The disorder is slightly more common in boys. Most of these tumours originate from nerve tissue that has not developed beyond the embryonic stage. Neuroblastomas may occur in the abdomen or, less commonly, in the chest or pelvic cavity and often spread elsewhere. About half of all neuroblastomas develop in the adrenal glands, above the kidneys. The cause of these tumours is not known, although a genetic factor is thought to be involved.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of neuroblastoma may be present from birth or develop gradually in childhood. They may include:

  • Lump in the abdomen.

  • Painless, bluish lumps on the skin.

  • Tiredness.

  • “Dancing” eye movements.

If a neuroblastoma spreads through the body, other symptoms may occur, such as bone pain or, if the lymph nodes are affected, swellings in the neck or armpits. Anaemia may result if the cancer spreads to the bone marrow.

What might be done?

If the doctor suspects a neuroblastoma, he or she may arrange for a urine test to check for substances that indicate the presence of a tumour. The diagnosis is confirmed by a biopsy, in which a tissue sample is removed for examination. MRI or radionuclide scanning may be needed to find out if the cancer has spread elsewhere. A bone marrow aspiration and biopsy may also be performed to look for the spread of cancer to the bones. If possible, the tumour is removed surgically. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy may also be necessary.

If a tumour has not spread, about 9 in 10 children remain well 5 years after surgery. When a tumour has spread, the outlook is poor, with only about 2 in 10 children surviving more than a year after the diagnosis. In babies under 1 year of age, neuroblastomas may disappear without requiring treatment.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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