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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that starts in primitive nerve cells. It affects infants (younger than a year old) and children. It rarely occurs after age 10. On average, children with the disease are diagnosed between 1 and 2 years old.

Neuroblastoma often starts in the nerves in the adrenal glands. People have two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney. These glands produce hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and the way the body reacts to stress. When a neuroblastoma starts in an adrenal gland, it usually grows into a large, firm mass that presses on other organs.

The disease can develop in other areas of the body, including the nerves near the backbone and in the spinal cord. It can also develop in the abdomen, chest, neck, and pelvis, but this is less common.

As a neuroblastoma grows, it has the potential to spread (metastasize) to other areas, most often to the bone marrow, bones, liver, and skin. In one type of neuroblastoma that occurs in infants, the cancer has already spread by the time it's diagnosed. Even so, these patients tend to do very well. There have been cases in which the tumors in these infants go away on their own, but this is not common.

There is no solid evidence that neuroblastoma is caused by toxic chemicals or something in the environment. It is sometimes inherited.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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