Neuroblastoma (Children -Symptoms and Stages)

Neuroblastoma Definition and Facts

  • Neuroblastoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in neuroblasts (immature nerve tissue) in the adrenal gland, neck, chest, or spinal cord.
  • Neuroblastoma is sometimes caused by a gene mutation (change) passed from the parent to the child.
  • Signs and symptoms of neuroblastoma include bone pain and a lump in the abdomen, neck, or chest.
  • Tests that examine many different body tissues and fluids are used to detect (find) and diagnose neuroblastoma.
  • A biopsy is done to diagnose neuroblastoma.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

What Is Neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in neuroblasts (immature nerve tissue) in the adrenal gland, neck, chest, or spinal cord.

Neuroblastoma often begins in the nerve tissue of the adrenal glands. There are two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney in the back of the upper abdomen. The adrenal glands make important hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and the way the body reacts to stress. Neuroblastoma may also begin in nerve tissue in the neck, chest, abdomen or pelvis.

Neuroblastoma most often begins in infancy and may be diagnosed in the first month of life. It is found when the tumor begins to grow and cause signs or symptoms. Sometimes it forms before birth and is found during a fetal ultrasound.

By the time neuroblastoma is diagnosed, the cancer has usually metastasized (spread). Neuroblastoma spreads most often to the lymph nodes, bones, bone marrow, and liver. In infants, it also spreads to the skin

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Neuroblastoma?

The most common signs and symptoms of neuroblastoma are caused by the tumor pressing on nearby tissues as it grows or by cancer spreading to the bone. These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by neuroblastoma or by other conditions.

Check with your child’s doctor if your child has any of the following:

  • Lump in the abdomen, neck, or chest.
  • Bulging eyes.
  • Dark circles around the eyes ("black eyes").
  • Bone pain.
  • Swollen stomach and trouble breathing (in infants).
  • Painless, bluish lumps under the skin (in infants).
  • Weakness or paralysis (loss of ability to move a body part).

Less common signs and symptoms of neuroblastoma include the following:

  • Fever.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling tired.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding.
  • Petechiae (flat, pinpoint spots under the skin caused by bleeding).
  • High blood pressure.
  • Severe watery diarrhea.
  • Horner syndrome (droopy eyelid, smaller pupil, and less sweating on one side of the face).
  • Jerky muscle movements.
  • Uncontrolled eye movements.

What Is the Cause of Neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is sometimes caused by a gene mutation (change) passed from the parent to the child.

Gene mutations that increase the risk of neuroblastoma are sometimes inherited (passed from the parent to the child). In children with a gene mutation, neuroblastoma usually occurs at a younger age and more than one tumor may form in the adrenal glands.

What Are the Stages of Neuroblastoma?

After neuroblastoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer has spread from where it started to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out the extent or spread of cancer is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process helps determine the stage of the disease. For neuroblastoma, the stage of disease affects whether the cancer is low risk, intermediate risk, or high risk. It also affects the treatment plan. The results of some tests and procedures used to diagnose neuroblastoma may be used for staging. See the diagnosis section for more information about these procedures and tests.

The following tests and procedures also may be used to determine the stage:

  • Lymph node biopsy: The removal of all or part of a lymph node. A pathologist views the tissue under a microscope to look for cancer cells. One of the following types of biopsies may be done:
  • Excisional biopsy: The removal of an entire lymph node.
  • Incisional biopsy: The removal of part of a lymph node.
  • Core biopsy: The removal of tissue from a lymph node using a wide needle.
  • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy: The removal of tissue or fluid from a lymph node using a thin needle.
  • X-ray of the bone: An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body. When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if neuroblastoma spreads to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are actually neuroblastoma cells. The disease is metastatic neuroblastoma, not liver cancer.

The following stages are used for neuroblastoma:

Stage 1

In stage 1, the tumor is in only one area and all of the tumor that can be seen is completely removed during surgery.

Stage 2

Stage 2 is divided into stages 2A and 2B.

  • Stage 2A: The tumor is in only one area and all of the tumor that can be seen cannot be completely removed during surgery.
  • Stage 2B: The tumor is in only one area and all of the tumor that can be seen may be completely removed during surgery. Cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes near the tumor.

Stage 3

In stage 3, one of the following is true:

  • the tumor cannot be completely removed during surgery and has spread from one side of the body to the other side and may also have spread to nearby lymph nodes; or
  • the tumor is in only one area, on one side of the body, but has spread to lymph nodes on the other side of the body; or
  • the tumor is in the middle of the body and has spread to tissues or lymph nodes on both sides of the body, and the tumor cannot be removed by surgery.

Stage 4

Stage 4 is divided into stages 4 and 4S.

  • In stage 4, the tumor has spread to distant lymph nodes or other parts of the body.
  • In stage 4S:
    • the child is younger than 12 months; and
    • the cancer has spread to the skin, liver, and/or bone marrow; and
    • the tumor is in only one area and all of the tumor that can be seen may be completely removed during surgery; and/or
    • cancer cells may be found in the lymph nodes near the tumor.

Treatment of neuroblastoma is based on risk groups.

For many types of cancer, stages are used to plan treatment. For neuroblastoma, treatment depends on risk groups. The stage of neuroblastoma is one factor used to determine risk group. Other factors are the age of the child, tumor histology, and tumor biology.

There are three risk groups: low risk, intermediate risk, and high risk.

  • Low-risk and intermediate-risk neuroblastoma have a good chance of being cured.
  • High-risk neuroblastoma may be hard to cure.

How Is Neuroblastoma Diagnosed?

Tests that examine many different body tissues and fluids are used to detect (find) and diagnose neuroblastoma.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.
  • Urine catecholamine studies: A procedure in which a urine sample is checked to measure the amount of certain substances, vanillylmandelic acid (VMA) and homovanillic acid (HVA), that are made when catecholamines break down and are released into the urine. A higher than normal amount of VMA or HVA can be a sign of neuroblastoma.
  • Blood chemistry studies: A procedure in which a blood sample is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs and tissues in the body. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease.
  • X-ray: An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) with gadolinium: A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. A substance called gadolinium is injected into a vein. The gadolinium collects around the cancer cells so they show up brighter in the picture. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • MIBG (metaiodobenzylguanidine) scan: A procedure used to find neuroendocrine tumors, such as neuroblastoma. A very small amount of a substance called radioactive MIBG is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. Neuroendocrine tumor cells take up the radioactive MIBG and are detected by a scanner. Scans may be taken over 1-3 days. An iodine solution may be given before or during the test to keep the thyroid gland from absorbing too much of the MIBG. This test is also used to find out how well the tumor is responding to treatment. MIBG is used in high doses to treat neuroblastoma.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of bone marrow, blood, and a small piece of bone by inserting a hollow needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views the bone marrow, blood, and bone under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The picture can be printed to be looked at later. An ultrasound exam is not done if a CT/MRI has been done.

Biopsy to Diagnose Neuroblastoma

A biopsy is done to diagnose neuroblastoma.

Cells and tissues are removed during a biopsy so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. The way the biopsy is done depends on where the tumor is in the body. Sometimes the whole tumor is removed at the same time the biopsy is done.

The following tests may be done on the tissue that is removed:
  • Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
  • Light microscopy: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under regular and high-powered microscopes to look for certain changes in the cells.
  • Immunohistochemistry: A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between different types of cancer.
  • MYCN amplification study: A laboratory study in which tumor or bone marrow cells are checked for the level of MYCN. MYCN is important for cell growth. A higher level of MYCN (more than 10 copies of the gene) is called MYCN amplification. Neuroblastoma with MYCN amplification is more likely to spread in the body and less likely to respond to treatment.

Children up to 6 months old may not need a biopsy or surgery to remove the tumor because the tumor may disappear without treatment.

What Is the Survival Rate for a Child with Neuroblastoma?

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • Age of the child at the time of diagnosis.
  • The child's risk group.
  • Whether there are certain changes in the genes.
  • Where in the body the tumor started.
  • Tumor histology (the shape, function, and structure of the tumor cells).
  • Whether there is cancer in the lymph nodes on the same side of the body as the primary cancer or whether there is cancer in the lymph nodes on the opposite side of the body.
  • How the tumor responds to treatment.
  • How much time passed between diagnosis and when the cancer recurred (for recurrent cancer).

Prognosis and treatment options for neuroblastoma are also affected by tumor biology, which includes:

  • The patterns of the tumor cells.
  • How different the tumor cells are from normal cells.
  • How fast the tumor cells are growing.
  • Whether the tumor shows MYCN amplification.
  • Whether the tumor has changes in the ALK gene.

The tumor biology is said to be favorable or unfavorable, depending on these factors. A favorable tumor biology means there is a better chance of recovery.

In some children up to 6 months old, neuroblastoma may disappear without treatment. This is called spontaneous regression. The child is closely watched for signs or symptoms of neuroblastoma. If signs or symptoms occur, treatment may be needed.

What about Recurrent Neuroblastoma?

Recurrent neuroblastoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the same place or in other parts of the body.

Reviewed on 10/9/2017

SOURCES: NIH. "Neuroblastoma Treatment -Patient Version was originally published by the National Cancer Institute." Updated: Oct 06, 2017.
<https://www.cancer.gov/types/neuroblastoma/patient/neuroblastoma-treatment-pdq<

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