Neuroblastoma Screening (PDQ®): Screening - Patient Information [NCI]

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Neuroblastoma Screening

What is screening?

Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.

Scientists are trying to better understand which people are more likely to get certain types of cancer. They also study the things we do and the things around us to see if they cause cancer. This information helps doctors recommend who should be screened for cancer, which screening tests should be used, and how often the tests should be done.

It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when you have no cancer symptoms.

If a screening test result is abnormal, you may need to have more tests done to find out if you have cancer. These are called diagnostic tests.

General Information About Neuroblastoma Cancer

Neuroblastoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in nerve tissue.

Neuroblastoma often begins in the nerve tissue of the adrenal glands. There are two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney, in the back of the upper abdomen. The adrenal glands make important hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and the way the body reacts to stress. Neuroblastoma may also begin in the abdomen, chest, spinal cord, or in nerve tissue near the spine in the neck.

Anatomy of the female urinary system; drawing shows a front view of the right and left kidneys, the ureters, urethra, and bladder filled with urine. The inside of the left kidney shows the renal pelvis. An inset shows the renal tubules and urine. The spine, adrenal glands, and uterus are also shown.
Anatomy of the female urinary system showing the kidneys, adrenal glands, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Urine is made in the renal tubules and collects in the renal pelvis of each kidney. The urine flows from the kidneys through the ureters to the bladder. The urine is stored in the bladder until it leaves the body through the urethra.

Neuroblastoma most often begins during early childhood, usually in children younger than 5 years of age.

See the PDQ summary on Neuroblastoma Treatment for more information about neuroblastoma.

Most cases of neuroblastoma are diagnosed before 1 year of age.

Neuroblastoma is the most common type of cancer in infants. The number of new cases of neuroblastoma is greatest among children under 1 year of age. As children get older, the number of new cases decreases. Neuroblastoma is slightly more common in males than females.

Neuroblastoma sometimes forms before birth but is usually found later, when the tumor begins to grow and cause symptoms. In rare cases, neuroblastoma may be found before birth, by fetal ultrasound.

The risk factors for neuroblastoma are not known.

Neuroblastoma Screening

Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer.

Some screening tests are used because they have been shown to be helpful both in finding cancers early and in decreasing the chance of dying from these cancers. Other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people; however, it has not been proven in clinical trials that use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.

Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. Cancer screening trials also are meant to show whether early detection (finding cancer before it causes symptoms) decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. For some types of cancer, the chance of recovery is better if the disease is found and treated at an early stage.

Clinical trials that study cancer screening methods are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

There is no standard or routine screening test for neuroblastoma.

There is no standard or routine screening test used to find neuroblastoma. A urine test is sometimes used to check for neuroblastoma, usually when the child is 6 months old. This is a test in which urine is collected for 24 hours to measure the amounts of certain substances. An unusual (higher or lower than normal) amount of a substance can be a sign of disease in the organ or tissue that makes it. A higher than normal amount of homovanillic acid (HMA) and vanillyl mandelic acid (VMA) may be a sign of neuroblastoma.

Screening for neuroblastoma may not help the child live longer.

Studies have shown that screening for neuroblastoma does not decrease the chance of dying from the disease. Almost all neuroblastomas that are found by screening children at 6 months of age are the type that have a good prognosis (chance of recovery).

Risks of Neuroblastoma Screening

Screening tests have risks.

Decisions about screening tests can be difficult. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.

The risks of neuroblastoma screening include the following:

Neuroblastoma may be overdiagnosed.

When a screening test result leads to the diagnosis and treatment of a disease that may never have caused symptoms or become life-threatening, it is called overdiagnosis. For example, when a urine test result shows a higher than normal amount of homovanillic acid (HMA) or vanillyl mandelic acid (VMA), tests and treatments for neuroblastoma are likely to be done, but may not be needed. At this time, it is not possible to know which neuroblastomas found by a screening test will cause symptoms and which neuroblastomas will not. Diagnostic tests (such as biopsies) and cancer treatments (such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy) can have serious risks, including physical and emotional problems.

False-negative test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be normal even though neuroblastoma is present. A person who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care even if there are symptoms.

False-positive test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. A false-positive test result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't) can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests and procedures, which also have risks.

Changes to This Summary (03 / 22 / 2013)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Images were added to this summary and editorial changes were made.

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about neuroblastoma screening. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

Reviewers and Updates

Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."

The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:

National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Neuroblastoma Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/screening/neuroblastoma/Patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

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Last Revised: 2013-03-22


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