Early symptoms of neuroblastoma can mimic other common childhood illnesses

Usually, a tumor is detected after a child has shown various symptoms of neuroblastoma, making it important for parents to know and pay attention to the signs.

Neuroblastoma is a rare type of childhood cancer that starts in the nerve cells of the sympathetic nervous system, and usually affects infants and children under age 5. The average age of diagnosis is 18 months. Around 800 new cases of neuroblastoma are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

Neuroblastoma can be difficult to diagnose

“In young children, neuroblastoma often is discovered after a parent or doctor feels an unusual lump or mass in the child’s body,” said Natalie F. Slone, D.O., pediatric hematologist/oncologist with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “Neuroblastoma may appear in the child’s abdomen, chest or neck, and the cancer can spread to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body.”

Neuroblastoma can be hard to diagnose in the early stages, since early signs can develop slowly or mimic symptoms of other common illnesses in children. It is important if your child exhibits any symptoms or changes in behavior to raise any concerns with your child’s provider.

Symptoms of neuroblastoma

The signs of neuroblastoma can vary, depending on which part of the body is affected.

The first symptoms of neuroblastoma are often vague and may include:

  • Irritability
  • Pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • A swollen belly
  • Being very tired
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss
  • Dark circles around the eyes
  • Weakness
  • Fever

If a tumor presses on nearby tissues or the cancer spreads to other areas, different symptoms can appear. Parents may palpate a mass in their child’s abdomen, which is the most common site of neuroblastoma in young children.

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Other symptoms of neuroblastoma may include bone pain, or changes to the eyes, such as drooping eyelids or unequal pupil size.

Treatment and clinical trials

Treatment for neuroblastoma depends on the severity of the cancer and may include watchful waiting, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, stem cell transplant and immunotherapy.

Patients of Norton Children’s Cancer Institute will have access to innovative new treatments for neuroblastoma through clinical trials conducted by our board-certified team of oncologists.