Neuroblastoma is a rare form of cancer that often starts during fetal development in the primitive nerve cells of the sympathetic nervous system — a nerve network that carries messages from the brain throughout the body. After the baby is born, a solid tumor may begin to form in the neck, chest, abdomen, or pelvis, but most commonly in the adrenal gland. Most children affected by neuroblastoma have been diagnosed before the age of 5, however in rare cases, it can be detected before birth by a fetal ultrasound. Unfortunately, tumors are not usually detected until they grow large enough to compress the surrounding organs. By the time symptoms appear, 70% of the children diagnosed with neuroblastoma will have some metastatic disease where the cancer has spread into other parts of the body such as lymph nodes, liver, lungs, bones, bone marrow, or central nervous system (spine or brain).
Though compared to other cancers in general neuroblastoma is rare, it is the most common solid tumor cancer in childhood. Each year there are about 700 new cases diagnosed in the United States.
What Causes Neuroblastoma?
The only risk factor that has been established for neuroblastoma is heredity. Recent research indicates that a common genetic variation of the gene 6p22 on chromosome 6 doubles the risk of this disease. Also, having this particular variation increases the chance that a child will develop a more aggressive form of the disease. There have been studies done that suggest there may be certain environmental risk factors that increase the likelihood of having a child with neuroblastoma. Not enough research has been done in this area to make any definitive corelations, however this is an area of importance where there will likely be much more work done.