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 retinoblastoma?

The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eyeball. Retinoblastoma is a cancer of the retina that happens mostly to young children.

  • Retinoblastoma can run in families

  • It usually happens before age 2

  • About 1 in 4 children with retinoblastoma have it in both eyes

  • A child with retinoblastoma may have a white pupil, crossed eyes, or vision problems

  • Treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation therapy 

What causes retinoblastoma?

Retinoblastoma is caused by a problem with the genes that control eye development. A baby can inherit this problem from a parent or the problem can happen on its own.

What are the symptoms of retinoblastoma?

Symptoms include:

If the cancer has spread, children may also throw up, lose their appetite, or have a headache.

How can doctors tell if my child has retinoblastoma?

If a doctor suspects a retinoblastoma, they'll:

  • Do a special eye exam while your child is asleep under general anesthesia

  • Ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI to see the retina

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

Doctors will also do genetic testing to see if your child's retinoblastoma is the type that can be passed down in a family. If it is, doctors will also test members of the child's family. Brothers and sisters at risk for retinoblastoma should have eye exams every 4 months from birth to age 4. Parents' eyes should also be checked, because the same gene can cause noncancerous tumors in an adult retina.

How do doctors treat retinoblastoma?

Treatment depends on where the retinoblastoma is and whether it has spread. It's important to remove the whole tumor, but if possible, doctors use treatments that spare the vision.

If retinoblastoma is only in one eye, doctors usually:

  • Remove the eye

If the retinoblastoma is in both eyes, doctors may remove the eye with the largest tumor and try to treat the other eye without removing it so your child can still see. Those treatments may use:

After treatment, specialists should examine your child regularly to make sure the cancer hasn't come back.

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