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What is a Neuroblastoma?

Harvard Health Publishing

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that starts in primitive nerve cells. It affects infants (younger than a year old) and children. It rarely occurs after age 10. On average, children with the disease are diagnosed between 1 and 2 years old.

Neuroblastoma often starts in the nerves in the adrenal glands. People have two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney. These glands produce hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and the way the body reacts to stress. When a neuroblastoma starts in an adrenal gland, it usually grows into a large, firm mass that presses on other organs.

The disease can develop in other areas of the body, including the nerves near the backbone and in the spinal cord. It can also develop in the abdomen, chest, neck, and pelvis, but this is less common.

As a neuroblastoma grows, it has the potential to spread (metastasize) to other areas, most often to the bone marrow, bones, liver, and skin. In one type of neuroblastoma that occurs in infants, the cancer has already spread by the time it’s diagnosed. Even so, these patients tend to do very well. There have been cases in which the tumors in these infants go away on their own, but this is not common.

There is no solid evidence that neuroblastoma is caused by toxic chemicals or something in the environment. It is sometimes inherited.


Symptoms of a neuroblastoma include

Some of these symptoms are caused by hormones that the cancer secretes. These hormones can affect blood pressure and heart rate. They can also cause flushing of the skin and sweating.

In some cases, neuroblastoma is diagnosed by chance before it causes symptoms. It may be discovered when the child has an x-ray to check for another illness.


Your doctor will review your child’s symptoms and examine him or her. He or she will order blood and urine tests to check for hormones and other chemicals the tumor secretes. X-rays may also be ordered. A computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can give the doctor more information about the tumor. PET scanning may be recommended to determine the metabolic activity of the tumor.

If any of these tests show signs of cancer, your doctor will refer you to a medical center that treats cancer in children. There, your child will have more tests, such as a biopsy, to confirm the diagnosis. During this procedure, a doctor removes a small piece of the tumor and examines it in a laboratory. The doctor may take a bone marrow sample, too.

Expected Duration

In most cases, a neuroblastoma will keep growing until it is treated. Without treatment, the cancer can spread to the bone marrow, bones, liver, skin, and other parts of the body. Rarely, a neuroblastoma will shrink over time without treatment. This usually happens in infants.


There is no way to prevent neuroblastoma. However, genetic factors seem to play a role in its development. People with a strong family history of cancer—especially childhood cancer—might want to ask about genetic testing before starting a family.


Treatment depends on whether the child has a low, intermediate or high risk cancer. Most important in determining the risk is how much the cancer has spread. This is called the tumor stage. Tumor stage is determined by how much of the tumor can be removed and whether it has spread to nearby lymph nodes or to distant organs. Here are the stages of neuroblastoma:

Radiation and several types of chemotherapy have proved effective in treating neuroblastoma. Children who receive radiation or chemotherapy will need to be followed by a doctor after treatment. That’s because another cancer could develop. The doctor will also want to check for damage to bone marrow, the kidneys, heart, and other organs.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

When To Call a Professional

Call your doctor if your child shows symptoms of neuroblastoma, especially a swollen belly. As with any tumor, it is important to seek advice from a cancer specialist who works with children. He or she will recommend the best therapy for your child’s tumor and minimize the side effects of treatment. Treatment in a cancer center that focuses on children is usually best.


A genetic test may be able to estimate a child’s prognosis. But in general, nearly all children with localized neuroblastoma or special neuroblastoma can be cured with treatment. If the tumor has spread, the outlook is not quite as good. However, most children respond to treatment even if the cancer is advanced. Children with special neuroblastoma may do very well without treatment, but they need to be followed by a specialist.

Additional Information

National Cancer Institute (NCI)
NCI Public Inquiries Office
6116 Executive Blvd.
Room 3036A
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322
Toll-Free: 800-422-6237
TTY: 800-332-8615

American Cancer Society (ACS)
Toll-Free: 800-227-2345
TTY: 866-228-4327

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
141 Northwest Point Blvd.
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007-1098
Phone: 847-434-4000
Fax: 847-434-8000

American Society of Clinical Oncology
2318 Mill Road
Suite 800
Alexandria, VA 22314
Phone: 571-483-1300


Learn more about Neuroblastoma

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.