Neuroblastoma is a rare childhood cancer of what’s called the “sympathetic nervous system” — the network of nerves that carries messages from your brain to the rest of your body.
The cancer most often begins around the adrenal glands, those hormone-producing organs that sit atop the kidneys and have cells similar to nerve cells. But neuroblastoma can also start in other areas of the body where groups of nerve cells are clustered.
Doctors most often diagnose it in children younger than age 5. It is rarely seen in children older than 10.
There are several types of treatments that help many children with neuroblastoma to survive and lead healthy lives. Parents also have resources they can turn to after getting the diagnosis.
What Causes It?
In general, cancers begin with changes (“mutations”) in some cells of a person’s body. The changes allow these cells to grow out of control. They can form tumors and often stop the cells from carrying out what they are normally supposed to do.
In neuroblastoma, the mutations affect immature nerve cells in a baby still in the womb. The cells are called neuroblasts. As the baby continues to grow before birth, the neuroblasts mature into functioning nerve cells.
In a healthy baby, the neuroblasts go away completely as the nervous system matures. But in babies with this condition, the mutated neuroblasts stick around and form a tumor.
They vary widely, depending on where a tumor is located, how big it is, and how far along in growth it is. Many of the symptoms might point to conditions other than neuroblastoma.
In a child’s abdomen, it may cause:
Lumps or swelling in the bellyStomach pain or a constant feeling of being full, which can lead to weight lossSwelling in the child’s legs or in the scrotum caused by tumors pressing against blood and lymph vesselsProblems peeing or having bowel movements
In the cheek or neck, it might cause:
Swelling in the face, neck, arms, and chestHeadaches and dizzinessCoughing or trouble breathing or swallowingChanges to the eyes, including drooping eyelids and unequal pupil sizes