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Neuroblastoma is one of the 12 major childhood cancers. Neuroblastoma is a tumor in which cancer cells form in nerve tissue of the adrenal gland, neck, chest, spinal cord, and other areas of the body. There are three risk groups of neuroblastoma, including:
- Low Risk: Patients classified as low risk have three specific characteristics. The tumors are localized to one area, can be mostly or completely removed by a surgeon, or have features that indicate the tumor is unlikely to spread or reoccur.
- Intermediate Risk: Patients classified as intermediate risk have tumors that are difficult to remove completely with surgery. Their tumors also have some mixed cell characteristics and the patient may have symptoms stemming from the tumor compressing other organs.
- High Risk: Patients with high risk neuroblastoma have tumors that show aggressive characteristics. In addition, the disease is found in multiple places throughout the body.
- Approximately 650 children in the U.S. will be diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2012.
- Neuroblastoma accounts for 7 percent of childhood cancer cases and is responsible for approximately 15 percent of childhood cancer deaths.
- Neuroblastoma is most often diagnosed early in a person’s life, with 90 percent of all patients being diagnosed before age 5.
Because of the young age of most neuroblastoma patients, there are no specific lifestyle choices that increase a person’s risk of developing neuroblastoma. There are a few risk factors that have been identified, including:
- Age: Neuroblastoma is most commonly diagnosed in young children.
- Gender: Neuroblastoma is more likely to occur in males than females.
- Heredity: About 1 to 2 percent of all neuroblastoma patients have family members who were affected by the disease as infants.
Signs and Symptoms
In the early stages, it may be difficult to determine if the cancer is present. Neuroblastoma is often discovered when a mass or tumor is felt on a child’s body, often the abdomen. Symptoms of neuroblastoma vary from no outward symptoms to those common with childhood illnesses, such as bruising, mild flu symptoms, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Other acute symptoms include bone pain, hypertension, anemia, skin nodules, a pronounced lump, or a refusal to walk.
Tips for Prevention
There are no known ways to prevent neuroblastoma.
Treatment can involve one or more options depending on the patient, but can include:
- Surgery: Physicians may recommend surgery for a patient as the primary treatment if tumors have not spread to other parts of the body and no lymph nodes are exposed.
- Chemotherapy: If a patient is determined as high risk with a tumor that has spread, chemotherapy is usually the course of action. Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells and is given to the patient intravenously.
- High Dose Chemotherapy with Stem Cell Transplant: This procedure is used for high risk neuroblastoma patients and starts with a high dose of chemotherapy to eradicate the patient’s immune system and bone marrow. Then, stem cells are given to the patient intravenously. After a two to four week time period, the patient will hopefully start to develop new, healthy bone marrow and the immune system begins to rebuild, both of which continue to grow over time. The patient remains in isolation with specialized nursing through the process.
- Radiation: Another treatment for high-risk patients involves using external high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy, normal cells alone. Internal radiation is also used by injecting or swallowing radioactive material to kill cancer cells.
Some children develop side effects later in life after treatment, including reduction in bone growth, fertility problems, issues with heart and kidney function, hearing problems, or increased risk of developing cancer in the future.
Sources: American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, and Neuroblastoma Children’s Cancer Society