What is Neuroblastoma?
Mainly affecting children, neuroblastoma is a relatively rare cancer of the sympathetic nervous system — a nerve network that carries messages from the brain throughout the body. Each year about 600 children in the United States will develop neuroblastoma. Generally developing in young children, it accounts for half of all malignancies in infants. These solid tumors, which take the form of a lump or mass, commonly begin in one of the adrenal glands, though they can also develop in nerve tissues in the neck, chest, abdomen, or pelvis. The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, are specialized glands that release hormones which maintain blood pressure and respond to stress.
The cause of neuroblastoma is unknown, though most physicians believe that it is an accidental cell growth that occurs during normal development of the adrenal glands. Increased awareness and improved screening has contributed to a recent increase in the detection and incidence of neuroblastoma.
Neuroblastoma’s first symptoms are often vague and may include fatigue and loss of appetite. Later on, symptoms depend on where the tumor takes root within the body. A tumor in the abdomen may cause a swollen belly and constipation. A tumor in the chest may cause breathing problems. Tumors pressing on the spinal cord cause a feeling of weakness. When this occurs, the child may be unable to walk. Because symptoms are so unclear, half of all neuroblastomas have already spread to other parts of the body by the time suspicions are raised and a diagnosis is made.
Since neuroblastoma’s symptoms can be similar to symptoms of other, more common diseases and health complaints, there is often a delay in making the diagnosis. An oncologist or pathologist will be able to diagnose neuroblastoma once he or she reviews either a biopsy of the tumor or the results of urine and bone marrow tests.
Screening tests are available for neuroblastoma, but such tests will not find a neuroblastoma before it has spread throughout the body. For this reason, screening newborns or young children for neuroblastoma is generally not recommended.