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What is neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is a rare cancer that affects children, mostly under the age of 5 years old. Around 95 children between the ages of 0 and 14 years are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year in the UK. Very rarely it can develop in older children, teenagers and adults.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that starts in a type of nerve cell called a neuroblast.

  • ‘neuro’ means nerve
  • ‘blast’ means cells in early development
  • ‘oma’ means a group of cells, or a tumour

Where in the body does it start?

Neuroblastoma often starts in the tummy (abdomen), commonly in:

  • the adrenal glands Open a glossary item 
  • the nerve tissue at the back of the abdomen
Diagram showing a child's renal system

Where can neuroblastoma spread to?

Like other cancers it can spread to other parts of the body.

The most common places are the bones, liver and skin. It spreads through the blood and lymphatic system.

Diagram showing where neuroblastoma might spread to

This happens in about half (about 50%) of children with neuroblastoma. In the other half (about 50%) neuroblastoma is a single tumour in one place in the body.

What causes neuroblastoma

We don’t know exactly what causes neuroblastoma. In some cases, there is a family history. But these cases are very rare.

Parents of children with cancer can sometimes feel like something they did, or didn’t do, caused their child’s cancer. We don’t know what causes, or how to prevent most childhood cancers including neuroblastoma. No one should feel blamed.

Symptoms

The most common symptom of neuroblastoma is a lump in the tummy. This could make the child’s tummy swell, causing discomfort or pain.

There are other less common symptoms of neuroblastoma.

Staging and risk groups

Doctors group neuroblastoma in terms of risk. This looks at whether there is a low, medium or high risk of the cancer coming back after treatment. 

Doctors usually decide on a risk group depending on a number of things:

  • how old the child is
  • what the neuroblastoma cells look like under a microscope
  • the stage of neuroblastoma
  • changes in genes inside the neuroblastoma cells

The stage of a cancer tells you how big it is and whether it has spread. Knowing the stage can help your doctor decide on the right treatment. And it can help to predict the outcome after treatment.

Treatment

The main treatments for neuroblastoma are:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
Last reviewed: 
23 Feb 2021
Next review due: 
23 Feb 2024
  • Children, teenagers and young adults UK cancer statistics report 2021
    Public Health England (PHE), 2021

  • Oxford Textbook of Cancer in Children (7th Edition)
    H N Caron and others
    Oxford University Press, 2020

  • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), Last updated 2021

  • BMJ Best Practice Neuroblastoma
    J Shohet and others
    BMJ Publishing Group, last updated December 2020

  • Updates in Diagnosis, Management, and Treatment of Neuroblastoma
    C C Swift and others
    RadioGraphics, 2018. Volume 38, Issue 2, Pages 566 -580

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.