What Is Neuroblastoma?
Neuroblastoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in nerve tissue of the adrenal gland, neck, chest, or spinal cord.
Neuroblastoma often begins in the nerve tissue of the adrenal glands. There are two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney in the back of the upper abdomen. The adrenal glands produce important hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and the way the body reacts to stress. Neuroblastoma may also begin in the chest, in nerve tissue near the spine in the neck, or in the spinal cord.
Neuroblastoma most often begins during early childhood, usually in children younger than 5 years. It sometimes forms before birth but is usually found later, when the tumor begins to grow and cause symptoms. In rare cases, neuroblastoma may be found before birth by fetal ultrasound.
By the time neuroblastoma is diagnosed, the cancer has usually metastasized (spread), most often to the lymph nodes, bones, bone marrow, liver, and skin.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Possible signs of neuroblastoma include bone pain and a lump in the abdomen, neck, or chest.
The most common symptoms of neuroblastoma are caused by the tumor pressing on nearby tissues as it grows or by cancer spreading to the bone. These and other symptoms may be caused by neuroblastoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:
- Lump in the abdomen, neck, or chest.
- Bulging eyes.
- Dark circles around the eyes ("black eyes").
- Bone pain.
- Swollen stomach and trouble breathing in infants.
- Painless, bluish lumps under the skin in infants.
- Weakness or paralysis (loss of ability to move a body part).
Less Common Signs
Less common signs of neuroblastoma include the following:
- Shortness of breath.
- Feeling tired.
- Easy bruising or bleeding.
- Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
- High blood pressure.
- Severe watery diarrhea.
- Jerky muscle movements.
- Uncontrolled eye movement.
- Swelling of the legs, ankles, feet, or scrotum.
Tests that examine many different body tissues and fluids are used to detect (find) and diagnose neuroblastoma.
The following tests and procedures may be used:
- Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
- Twenty-four-hour urine test: A test in which urine is collected for 24 hours to measure the amounts of certain substances. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it. A higher than normal amount of the substances homovanillic acid (HMA) and vanillyl mandelic acid (VMA) may be a sign of neuroblastoma.
- Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it. A higher than normal amount of the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine may be a sign of neuroblastoma.
- Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
- Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
- Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.
- X-ray: An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
- CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
- Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.
- Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later.
- Immunohistochemistry study: A laboratory test in which a substance such as an antibody, dye, or radioisotope is added to a sample of cancer tissue to test for certain antigens. This type of study is used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.
Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.
The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:
- Age of the child when diagnosed.
- Stage of the cancer.
- Where the tumor is in the body.
- Tumor histology (the shape, function, and structure of the tumor cells).
Prognosis and treatment decisions for neuroblastoma are also affected by tumor biology, which includes:
- The patterns of the tumor cells.
- How different the tumor cells are from normal cells.
- How fast the tumor cells are growing.
- The number of chromosomes in the tumor cells.
- How many copies of the N-myc gene there are.
The tumor biology is said to be favorable or unfavorable, depending on these factors. A favorable tumor biology means there is a better chance of recovery. Information from the National Institutes of Health, November 2008