Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Neuroblastoma in children

4-minute read

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that affects young children. It can range in form from a non-cancerous tumour to an aggressive cancer. The outlook for a child with neuroblastoma depends on the type of tumour, where it is, and whether it is slow or fast growing.

What is neuroblastoma?

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that grows in the cells of the body’s nerves, called neuroblasts. A tumour develops in the adrenal glands, which are in the tummy near the kidneys, or around the spinal cord at the back of the chest or in the neck.

We don’t know why some children develop neuroblastoma. It is more common in children who have a family history of neuroblastoma, or in children with some genetic conditions.

Neuroblastoma usually affects children under 5 and is rare in children over 10.

Types of neuroblastoma

There are many types of neuroblastoma and each one behaves differently. Some spread quickly, and some grow slowly. Sometimes, in very young children, the tumour just goes away by itself. Sometimes the cancer cells stop dividing and the tumour is benign (not cancerous). In other cases, the tumour is very aggressive and cannot be cured.

Neuroblastoma symptoms

The symptoms of neuroblastoma depend on where the tumour is, how large it is, whether it has spread, and whether it is producing hormones. Symptoms may include:

  • a painless lump or swelling in the tummy or neck
  • swelling in the legs, upper chest, neck or face
  • an enlarged tummy
  • problems breathing or swallowing
  • weight loss
  • not eating or feeling full quickly
  • bulging eyes or dark circles around the eyes
  • problems going to the toilet
  • pain in the bones
  • bluish bumps on the skin
  • a drooping eyelid and a small pupil in one eye
  • weakness
  • not being able to feel or move one part of the body

Remember that each of these symptoms can be due to other conditions and they don’t necessarily mean your child has neuroblastoma. If you are worried about your child’s symptoms, see your doctor.

Neuroblastoma diagnosis

There are different tests to diagnose neuroblastoma. The first is a urine test to look for raised levels of a hormone called catecholamine, which can indicate a child might have neuroblastoma.

Other tests may include blood tests, CT, MRI or PET scans, x-rays, bone scans and bone marrow tests. The diagnosis is usually confirmed by taking a biopsy of the tumour, where a small piece of tissue is removed for analysis in the laboratory.

Based on the results of these tests, a medical team will calculate the stage of the tumour. This means how big it is and whether it has spread. The tumour can be:

  • Stage 1 – small and unlikely to spread
  • Stage 2 – likely to grow and spread
  • Stage 3 – has already spread to the lymph nodes, or is very likely to spread
  • Stage 4 – has already spread to distant parts of the body

Once the stage is known, the medical team can work out how to treat the neuroblastoma and what the outlook for the child is likely to be.

Neuroblastoma treatment

If your child has neuroblastoma, they will be looked after by a team of health professionals known as a multidisciplinary team. Specialists they might see include paediatric oncologists (doctors who specialise in treating children’s cancer); medical oncologists (doctors who specialise in medicines to treat cancer); radiation oncologists (doctors who specialise in using radiotherapy to treat cancer); surgeons; nurses; social workers; rehabilitation therapists; psychologists; and other specialists.

The best treatment will depend on the type of tumour, where it is, how quickly it’s growing, and how your child reacts to the treatment. Most children will have a combination of treatments. Options include:

Surgery: Surgical treatment aims to remove all or part of the tumour.

Chemotherapy: Anti-cancer medicines are used to destroy the cancer cells. Your child could have a combination of different medicines.

Radiotherapy: High-energy x-rays are used to destroy cancer cells.

Bone marrow transplant: This is usually done along with chemotherapy or radiotherapy. It’s also called a stem cell transplant.

Immunotherapy: Some trials are being conducted on emerging treatments for neuroblastoma that harness the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells.

Some children won’t be treated at first, but they will be closely monitored and treated if any symptoms develop.

Where to find information and support

The Cancer Council in your state or territory offers information and support for people with cancer. Call 13 11 20.

Neuroblastoma Australia has information about neuroblastoma and the latest advances in treatment.

The Children’s Cancer Foundation provides family support and information about the latest treatments.

Kids with Cancer Foundation Australia provides financial assistance to children with cancer and their families.

Cancer Australia has links to support organisations for children with cancer and their families. It can also help you find clinical trials that your child could join and a list of children’s hospitals in Australia.

Last reviewed: August 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Neuroblastomas

Home / Cancer & Blood Disorders / What is Cancer? / Neuroblastomas Neuroblastomas Neuroblastoma is one of the most frequently encountered solid tumours in early childhood and almost always occurs in the first 5-6 years of life

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Neuroblastoma | Cancer Australia Children's Cancers

Information on Neuroblastoma including risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

Read more on Cancer Australia website

Neuroblastoma cancer information | myVMC

Neuroblastoma are brain, neck or leg cancers and are the most common solid cancer tumours in children. It also affects adults.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Neuroblastoma - Information, Treatment & Support - CanTeen

A neuroblastoma is a cancer of the specialised neural cells and is the most common solid tumour in children. Learn more about causes, diagnosis and treatments with CanTeen.

Read more on CanTeen website

Rare Cancers Australia - Directory - Neuroblastoma

Rare Cancers Australia is a charity whose purpose is to improve the lives and health outcomes of Australians living with a rare or less common cancer.

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

What is Cancer?

Leukaemia Brain Tumours Lymphomas Neuroblastomas Malignant Bone Tumours Rhabdomyosarcoma Wilms Tumour Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis Liver Cancer Germ Cell Tumours Home / Cancer & Blood Disorders / What is Cancer? What is Cancer? Cancer is a non-contagious disease caused by the abnormal, uncontrolled growth of cells

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Rare Cancers Australia - Directory - Esthesioneuroblastoma

Rare Cancers Australia is a charity whose purpose is to improve the lives and health outcomes of Australians living with a rare or less common cancer.

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

Rare Cancers Australia - Directory - Childhood Central Nervous System Embryonal Tumors

Rare Cancers Australia is a charity whose purpose is to improve the lives and health outcomes of Australians living with a rare or less common cancer.

Read more on Rare Cancers Australia website

Other Cancers - Information, Treatment & Support - CanTeen

Other cancers cover a range of uncommon and rare cancers and tumours. Learn more about causes, diagnosis and treatments with CanTeen.

Read more on CanTeen website

Ewing's sarcoma (bone cancer) information | myVMC

Ewing's sarcoma is a rare bone tumour associated with rapid bone growth in adolescence. It is usually genetic and treated with chemotherapy.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo