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About neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is a rare cancer that affects children, mostly under the age of 5 years old. Around 100 children are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year in the UK. Very rarely it can develop in older children, teenagers and adults.

What is neuroblastoma?

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 - there is one gland on top of each kidney
  • the nerve tissue at the back of the abdomen
Diagram showing a child's renal system

Where neuroblastoma can spread

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: 
16 May 2018
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Information and help

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