Neuroblastoma is a rare tumor originating from nerve tissue. It is a cancer that usually affects children under the age of 5, although it can appear at any age.
It is usually found in the adrenal glands, which are the ones that sit above the kidneys. However, other places are also sites of settlement, such as the neck, abdomen and chest, albeit to a lesser extent.
The truth is, in some cases, no treatment is needed. However, in others, this tumor is life threatening. Therefore, in this article we explain everything you need to know about neuroblastoma.
What is a neuroblastoma?
Neuroblastoma is a malignant tumor that originates in the nervous system. Its name comes from the Greek neuron, meaning ‘nerve’, e explosions, which refers to ‘cell’. the suffix -oma means “tumor”.
According to an article published in the Association of Relatives and Friends of Neuroblastoma Patients, It develops in the sympathetic nervous system. It is what allows us to react to dangerous situations, activating the body.
This cancer usually affects children. In fact it is the most frequent during the first 2 years of life. It is estimated that 1 in 7,000 live newborns is affected. Furthermore, it accounts for almost 10% of all pediatric cancers.
The reason is that it is an embryonic tumor. It can appear anywhere in the autonomic nervous system. However, the most common area is that of the adrenal glands. It can also metastasize and spread to other parts of the body.
Symptoms of neuroblastoma
The symptoms of neuroblastoma vary depending on the location of the tumor. As we have pointed out, the place of predilection is the adrenal glands.
In this case, abdominal pain is common. In addition, a subcutaneous mass can be palpated in most patients. It is frequent that the intestinal rhythm is altered, both diarrhea and constipation being able to appear.
As explained by Mayo Clinic specialists neuroblastoma also occurs in the chest. When this happens there is usually wheezing (sound when breathing) and chest pain. Another of the characteristic signs is anisocoria, which consists in the fact that pupils are unequal in size.
As with other cancers, unexplained weight loss, malaise, and fever are part of the syndrome. Some patients have particularly protruding eyes (called proptosis).
Main causes and risk factors
As with any other cancer, the underlying cause of neuroblastoma is that cells begin to proliferate out of control. The reason this occurs is genetic mutations.
Here because multiply uncontrollably and form a mass It interferes with healthy tissue cells. In this case, it occurs in the sympathetic nervous system. The cells are called neuroblasts.
Neuroblasts are embryonic cells that mature to become nerve cells as such. As explained by one Cleveland Clinic publication, Typically, these cells have matured by the time of birth.
What happens is that some babies are born with a small percentage of immature neuroblasts. If they mutate and proliferate, they give rise to pathology.
In fact, the exact cause is not precisely known. However, children who have a family history of neuroblastoma are more likely to develop it.
Neuroblastoma, in some cases, can lead to serious complications. If the primary tumor spreads to other parts of the body, there are metastases that impair the functionality of the tissues.
On the other hand, if the neuroblastoma is close to the spinal cord it can compress it. Depending on which nerves are affected, more neurological sequelae will appear. For example, paralysis, sphincter impairment, and neuropathic pain.
Neuroblastoma cells can secrete a variety of chemicals or hormones. These exert their action on numerous parts of the body. They can give rise to the call paraneoplastic syndrome.
For example, they can secrete catecholamines. They are substances responsible for stimulating the body, leading to vasoconstriction, tachycardia and nervousness. The consequences are impaired coordination, diarrhea and abnormal eye movements.
How is neuroblastoma diagnosed?
The diagnosis of neuroblastoma is complex. The first thing is a thorough physical exam. Because this tumor occurs in very young children, your doctor will likely detect an abnormal mass during a pediatric checkup.
As explained by A article by ChildrenHealth, the diagnosis requires a series of complementary tests. One of the most used is the analysis of blood and urine.
In both you can see the increase in some substances that may give rise to suspicions towards a neuroblastoma. As we explained in the previous section, this tumor secretes catecholamines. Thus, its metabolites increase and the concentration of homovanillic acid (HVA) and vanilylmandelic acid (VMA) is measured.
Moreover, Imaging tests are used to locate the tumor.. The most prescribed are radiography, ultrasound and computed tomography. Scintigraphy and MRI are also used.
As in other tumors, the biopsy plays an essential role. It is a test that involves extracting a tissue sample from the tumor and analyzing it in the laboratory. Thus, it is possible to study what the cells that form it look like and stage cancer.
Treatments available for neuroblastoma
Treatment of neuroblastoma depends on the characteristics of the tumor and the risk it presents. In some cases, this tumor can go away on its own no need to get close.
This is why sometimes it is preferable to wait and keep the patient under observation. This is only possible if the tumor is staged as low risk. However, in many other cases it is necessary to intervene.
One of the first options is surgery. The goal is to remove the entire tumor. The problem is that, since it is the nervous system, the removal is complex and risky.
For this reason, other techniques are optional, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The former is used if the neuroblastoma is intermediate or high risk or if there are metastases elsewhere in the body.
Radiotherapy, on the other hand, has no systemic effects. That means, its action is limited to a specific area of the body. It consists in directing radiation directly on the tumor.
Other treatment options
In cases where both surgery and radiation and chemotherapy fail, other approaches may be tried. One of the most used is stem cell transplantation. also called bone marrow transplant. Stem cells are those that can differentiate into any type. In this way they stimulate the growth of healthy elements.
Another option is retinoids. They are drugs that act in a similar way to vitamin A. They help prevent neuroblastoma from recurring.
Finally, another therapeutic step is immunotherapy. It consists of the use of drugs that stimulate the immune system to fight the tumor. Monoclonal antibodies are prescribed, which are molecules that specifically bind to cancer cells.
Neuroblastoma is a childhood cancer
Neuroblastoma is a tumor that develops from cells of the sympathetic nervous system. this cancer It tends to appear in children under 5 years of age.
The most common location is the adrenal glands. While it may resolve without treatment in some cases, it can be life-threatening in many others.
Here because It is important that children attend all recommended checkups with the pediatrician. Above all, it is essential to consult if symptoms or warning signs appear.
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