Neuroblastoma: What you need to know

Neuroblastoma specialist Susan Cohn, MD, speaks with a young patient and his parents

Susan Cohn, MD, with her patient, Carson Herzog and his parents, Jessica and Rob.

What is neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is a solid, cancerous tumor that begins in early nerve cells of the sympathetic nervous system. This type of tumor often is found in the abdomen, but can also be located in the neck, chest and/or pelvis. Most children with neuroblastoma are diagnosed before 5 years old.

What are symptoms of neuroblastoma?

One of the most common symptoms is irritability from bone pain. Other common symptoms include swelling around the eyes with bruising, or a lump or swelling in the child’s abdomen or neck. Sometimes the tumor can affect other parts of the body by pressing on nerves and veins, which may cause swelling or pain. Additional symptoms may include weight loss or poor appetite, problems with bowel movements or urination, back pain, weakness in the legs, and anemia.

Are there risk factors associated with development of neuroblastoma?

In about 2% of cases, children inherit an increased risk of developing neuroblastoma from a parent. Also, some studies show that children who have a change in genes during fetal development, which may cause birth defects, may also have an increased risk of developing neuroblastoma. No environmental factors are known to increase the chance of getting neuroblastoma. Lifestyle factors also are not known to contribute to risk; body weight, activity and diet take years to influence cancer risk and, thus, do not play a role in childhood cancers.

Why are neuroblastoma patients classified by risk groups?

Neuroblastoma grows and reacts differently to treatment in different patients. By using a combination of factors, doctors usually can predict how clinically aggressive the tumor will be and tailor treatments accordingly. Clinical, pathologic and genetic markers are used to predict the clinical behavior of the tumor, how it will respond to treatment and survival. These factors are used to assign patients to risk groups (low, intermediate or high) and guide treatment decisions.

Are clinical trials available for pediatric cancers?

Yes, clinical trials are standard practice in cancer treatment for pediatric cancers. About 60% of children with cancer are enrolled in a trial, compared to less than 5% of adult patients. The results of previous clinical trials have led to new standards of care and improved survival for children with neuroblastoma. You may search for neuroblastoma clinical trials at Comer Children's by visiting uchicagomedicine.org/comer.

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