Neuroblastoma is the most common solid tumour of childhood. It is almost exclusively a childhood cancer occurring most commonly between the ages of 0-5 years. It is a solid tumour arising from particular nerve cells which run in a chain-like fashion up the child’s abdomen and chest and into the skull following the line of the spinal cord. The most common site for the tumour to grow is in the abdomen. About 50% start in the adrenal gland above the kidney. Some tumours grow at the back of the chest and occasionally even higher up towards the neck.Neuroblasts are immature nerve cells found in unborn babies. Normal neuroblasts mature into nerve cells or adrenal medulla cells, which are cells found in the center of the adrenal gland. Neuroblastoma forms when neuroblasts don’t mature properly.
Approximately 10 new cases of neuroblastoma are diagnosed every year in Ireland. Of these babies and children, around 50 – approximately half – will have high risk disease The long term survival rate for high risk neuroblastoma patients remains less than 40%, which is around half the average survival rate for childhood cancers. Neuroblastoma may be difficult to diagnose as symptoms often do not become apparent until the tumor has reached a certain size. Even then symptoms may be subtle and similar to other more common non-serious childhood diseases. As a result it often takes some time before the final diagnosis of neuroblastoma is made. Often parents wonder if they or a doctor should have noticed something sooner, but because it is such a rare disease it is unlikely that a family doctor will ever see a child with neuroblastoma in a lifetime of practice.