Neuroblastoma

Summary Type: Treatment
Summary Audience: Patients
Summary Language: English
Summary Description: Expert-reviewed information summary about the treatment of childhood neuroblastoma.


Neuroblastoma

General Information About Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in nerve tissue of 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 produce important hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure , blood sugar, and the way the body reacts to stress. Neuroblastoma may also begin in the chest, in nerve tissue near the spine in the neck, or in the spinal cord .

Neuroblastoma most often begins during early childhood, usually in children younger than 5 years. It sometimes forms before birth but is usually found later, when the tumor begins to grow and cause symptoms . In rare cases, neuroblastoma may be found before birth by fetal ultrasound .

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

(See the PDQ summary on Screening for Neuroblastoma for more information.)

Possible signs of neuroblastoma include bone pain and a lump in the abdomen, neck, or chest.

The most common 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 symptoms may be caused by neuroblastoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • 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 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 .
  • Jerky muscle movements.
  • Uncontrolled eye movement.
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles, feet, or scrotum .
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.
  • Twenty-four-hour urine test: A test in which urine is collected for 24 hours to measure the amounts of certain substances. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it. A higher than normal amount of the substances homovanillic acid (HMA) and vanillyl mandelic acid (VMA) may 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 in the organ or tissue that makes it. A higher than normal amount of the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine may be a sign of neuroblastoma.
  • Cytogenetic analysis : A test in which cells in a sample of blood or bone marrow are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes .
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy : The removal of a small piece of bone, bone marrow, and blood by inserting a needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views both the bone and the bone marrow samples under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 .
  • Immunohistochemistry study: A procedure in which dyes or enzymes are added to a blood or bone marrow sample to test for certain antigens (proteins that stimulate the body's immune response ).
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 when diagnosed.
  • Stage of the cancer.
  • Where the tumor is in the body.
  • Tumor histology (the shape, function, and structure of the tumor cells).

Prognosis and treatment decisions 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.
  • The number of chromosomes in the tumor cells.
  • How many copies of the N-myc gene there are.

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.

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 , stage is one of the factors used to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used to determine the stage:

  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy : The removal of a small piece of bone, bone marrow , and blood by inserting a needle into the hipbone or breastbone. A pathologist views both the bone and bone marrow samples under a microscope to look for signs of cancer.
  • 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:
  • 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): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • X-rays of the chest, bones, and abdomen : 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.
  • 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 .
  • Radionuclide scan : A procedure to find areas in the body where cells, such as cancer cells, are dividing rapidly. A very small amount of radioactive material is swallowed or injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones or other tissues and is detected by a radiation -measuring device.
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 stage 2A and 2B.

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 stage 4 and stage 4S.

  • In stage 4 , the tumor has spread to distant lymph nodes , the skin, or other parts of the body.
  • In stage 4S , the following are true:
    • the child is younger than 1 year; 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 3 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 difficult to cure .

Progressive/Recurrent Neuroblastoma

Progressive neuroblastoma is cancer that has progressed (continued to grow) during treatment. 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.

Treatment Option Overview

There are different types of treatment for patients with neuroblastoma.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with neuroblastoma . Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials . A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer . When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a decision that ideally involves the patient, family, and health care team.

Children with neuroblastoma should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors with expertise in treating childhood cancer.

Your child's treatment will be managed by a pediatric oncologist , a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist may refer you to other pediatric doctors who have experience and expertise in treating children with neuroblastoma and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include the following specialists:

Children who are treated for neuroblastoma may be at higher risk for second cancers.

Some cancer treatments cause side effects that continue or appear years after cancer treatment has ended. These are called late effects . Late effects of cancer treatment include physical problems; changes in mood, feelings, actions, thinking, learning, or memory; and second cancers .

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important that parents of children who are treated for neuroblastoma talk with their doctors about the possible late effects caused by some treatments. See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information.

Four types of standard treatment are used:
Surgery

Surgery is usually used to treat neuroblastoma. Depending on where the tumor is and whether it has spread, as much of the tumor as possible will be removed. If the tumor cannot be removed, a biopsy may be done instead.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy . External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds , wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy ). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the spinal column , an organ , or a body cavity such as the abdomen , the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy ). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

The use of two or more anticancer drugs is called combination chemotherapy .

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient's condition without giving any treatment until symptoms appear or change.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials. These include the following:
Monoclonal antibody therapy

Monoclonal antibody therapy is a cancer treatment that uses antibodies made in the laboratory, from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion . They may be used alone or to deliver drugs, toxins , or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.

High-dose chemotherapy and radiation therapy with stem cell transplant

High-dose chemotherapy and radiation therapy with stem cell transplant is a way of giving high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and replacing blood -forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient or a donor and are frozen and stored. After chemotherapy and radiation therapy are completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.

Other drug therapy

13-cis retinoic acid is a vitamin -like drug that slows the cancer's ability to make more cancer cells and changes how these cells look and act.

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Treatment Options for Neuroblastoma

Low-Risk Neuroblastoma

Treatment of low-risk neuroblastoma may include the following:

  • Surgery followed by watchful waiting .
  • Watchful waiting alone for certain infants.
  • Surgery followed by chemotherapy , when less than half of the tumor is removed or when serious symptoms cannot be relieved by surgery.
  • Radiation therapy to treat tumors that are causing serious problems and do not respond quickly to chemotherapy.
  • Low-dose chemotherapy.

Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Intermediate-Risk Neuroblastoma

Treatment of intermediate-risk neuroblastoma may include the following:

High-Risk Neuroblastoma

Treatment of high-risk neuroblastoma may include the following:

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Progressive/Recurrent Neuroblastoma

Patients First Treated for Low-Risk Neuroblastoma

Treatment for recurrent neuroblastoma that is found in one place in the body may include the following:

Treatment for recurrent neuroblastoma that has spread to other parts of the body may include the following:

  • Watchful waiting.
  • Surgery followed by chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy.
  • High-dose chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, and 13-cis retinoic acid.
  • A clinical trial of a new treatment.

Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Patients First Treated for Intermediate-Risk Neuroblastoma

For recurrent neuroblastoma that is found in one place in the body, treatment is usually surgery , with or without chemotherapy .

For recurrent neuroblastoma that has spread to other parts of the body, treatment is usually high-dose chemotherapy , stem cell transplant , and 13-cis retinoic acid .

Patients First Treated for High-Risk Neuroblastoma

Treatment of recurrent neuroblastoma in patients first treated for high-risk neuroblastoma may include the following:

This summary section refers to specific treatments under study in clinical trials, but it may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Changes to This Summary (02/14/2007)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

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PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

In the United States, about two-thirds of children with cancer are treated in a clinical trial at some point in their illness. A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about new treatments, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard."

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. For additional help in locating a childhood cancer clinical trial, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

The PDQ database contains listings of groups specializing in clinical trials.

The Children's Oncology Group (COG) is the major group that organizes clinical trials for childhood cancers in the United States. Information about contacting COG is available on the NCI Web site or from the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

The PDQ database contains listings of cancer health professionals and hospitals with cancer programs.

Because cancer in children and adolescents is rare, the majority of children with cancer are treated by health professionals specializing in childhood cancers, at hospitals or cancer centers with special facilities to treat them. The PDQ database contains listings of health professionals who specialize in childhood cancer and listings of hospitals with cancer programs. For help locating childhood cancer health professionals or a hospital with cancer programs, call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

2007-02-14