What is Neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer.  It is the most common type of cancer that infants and children under the age of 5 are likely to have.  It grows within the tissues of the sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that help to carry messages from various parts of the body to the brain and from your brain to different parts of your body.  It develops as a tumor and it can spread to skin, bones, and lymph nodes.

This tumor develops in 4 stages that take into account whether or not the cancer has spread to nearby or even distant areas, the results of surgical intervention, and if it has spread to lymph nodes.

Neuroblastoma is defined as “˜recurrent’ if it comes back after being cured.

What are the Symptoms of Neuroblastoma?

Symptoms of neuroblastoma vary from child to child but some of the more common symptoms are bulging eyes and dark circles under the eyes, a lump in the neck, abdomen, or chest, swelling in the abdomen, weakness, paralysis, bone pain, and bruise-like swelling under the skin that doesn’t hurt.

Other symptoms that are more variable and may or may not occur are diarrhea, coughing, fever, tiredness, shortness of breath, petechaie (small flat red spots on the skin), bleeding and bruising for no apparent reason, and rapid heartbeat.

Neuroblastoma Causes

The precise cause of neuroblastoma is unknown, however, researchers can look at prognostic markers that indicate important differences between neuroblastoma cells and normal neuroblasts, which are the earliest forming nerve cells. We do know that neuroblastomas form when neuroblasts in the fetus do not become mature nerve cells or adrenal medulla cells (cells of the adrenal gland that develop from neuroblasts).

In very few cases, neuroblastoma is thought to occur because of changes in the ALK oncogene inherited from one of the parents (in about 1% – 2% of all cases). Some of these inherited neuroblastoma cases are due to changes in the gene PHOX2B that normally aid in the maturing of nerve cells.

There currently aren’t any known environmental or lifestyle-related causes for neuroblastomas that could have prevented this form of cancer.

How is Neuroblastoma Treated?

The treatment that your doctor recommends for your child with neuroblastoma will depend on their stage of cancer and their age.  It can include, separately or in combination, radiation therapy, surgery, immunotherapy, chemotherapy, or stem cell transplant. Treatment can take place over a period of years.

Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy particles of rays to kill the cancerous cells. A machine is used to aim the rays at a specific area. Side effects can include fatigue, skin irritations, and diarrhea.

Immunotherapy involves the use of medications designed to stimulate the immune system to help it fight disease.  It has also been called biologic therapy.

Chemotherapy makes use of anticancer drugs.  They are received intravenously but there is also the option to get them orally and these drugs can help kill the cancerous cells. There are side effects of chemotherapy that include vomiting, mouth sores, fatigue, nausea, a weakened immune system, and hair loss.  The side effects only occur during the treatment period.

Stem cell therapy is more commonly known as a bone marrow transplant and usually is suggested as a last resort or when other treatment options are not a good choice for your child.

Neuroblastoma Prevention

While there is no definitive cause of neuroblastoma, there are risk factors for this type of cancer. Age plays a big role as neuroblastoma is most common in young children under 10 years of age.

The other factor in the cause of neuroblastoma is heredity. However, only 1% to 2% of neuroblastoma cases are due to heredity. The familial type of neuroblastoma, which is a tendency to develop this kind of cancer due to inheritance, is typically inherited when one or more family members suffered from neuroblastoma as children.

Both age and heredity are factors that cannot be changed, and therefore, makes prevention of this type of cancer difficult to impossible.

Some studies have shown that women who take folic acid or prenatal vitamins during pregnancy may lower the risk of neuroblastoma, but more research on these preventative measures needs to be done.