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Merck Manual

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Quick Facts



The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2020| Content last modified Sep 2020
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What is neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that grows in immature nerve cells in various parts of the body. Neuroblastoma is the most common cancer in babies, and one of the most common in young children.

  • Neuroblastoma usually starts in the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) or in the nerves that run next to the spine in the chest or belly

  • The cancer can start to develop even before birth

  • Neuroblastoma often spreads to other parts of the body, such as the bones, skin, and spinal cord

  • Children have the best outcome if they are young and their cancer hasn't spread

  • Doctors treat neuroblastoma with surgery, chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation therapy

What causes neuroblastoma?

Most of the time, doctors don't know why children develop a neuroblastoma. Rarely, a baby inherits an abnormal gene that causes neuroblastoma.

What are the symptoms of neuroblastoma?

The symptoms of neuroblastoma depend on where the cancer starts and if it has spread.

If neuroblastoma starts in your child's belly, symptoms include:

  • A large belly

  • Feeling of being full

  • Belly pain

If neuroblastoma starts in your child's chest, symptoms include:

  • Cough

  • Trouble breathing

Your child may have other symptoms if the neuroblastoma has spread to other parts of the body:

  • Bones: Pain in the bones, weakness and tiredness, pale skin, bruising

  • Skin: Lumps on the skin

  • Spinal cord: Weak arms and/or legs

Many of these are also the symptoms of more common health problems in children.

How can doctors tell if my child has neuroblastoma?

Sometimes doctors suspect neuroblastoma after seeing a tumor on an ultrasound during pregnancy. Sometimes doctors feel a lump in your child's belly during a doctor visit. To know for sure if your child has neuroblastoma, doctors will:

  • Do a CT scan or MRI of the belly

  • Take a tissue sample of the tumor to look at under a microscope (called a biopsy)

  • Do urine tests to look for substances produced by the tumor

If your child has neuroblastoma, doctors will do more tests to see if the cancer has spread, including:

  • X-rays of all your child's bones

  • CT scan or MRI of other parts of the body

  • Taking a sample of bone marrow (bone marrow biopsy) to look for cancer

How do doctors treat neuroblastoma?

Doctors usually do:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor

  • Chemotherapy (using medicine to destroy cancer cells)

If the neuroblastoma has characteristics that make it especially dangerous, doctors may also do:

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