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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Can neuroblastoma be found early?

Researchers have studied whether screening infants for neuroblastoma might find these tumors earlier and lead to better treatment results. Screening is testing for a disease, such as cancer, in people who don’t have any symptoms. One way to screen for neuroblastoma is to test children’s urine for certain substances made by neuroblastoma tumors. (For more information on this urine test, see the section, “How is neuroblastoma diagnosed?”)

Studies have not found neuroblastoma screening to be helpful. Testing infants when they were 6 months old did find many tumors that wouldn’t have normally been diagnosed. But most of these tumors were of a type that probably would have gone away or matured into benign (non-cancerous) tumors on their own. These tumors probably would never have caused any problems. The screening didn’t lower the number of cancers found at advanced stages or save lives.

What’s more, finding tumors that would never cause serious problems may needlessly frighten parents and can lead to unnecessary tests and surgery in children whose tumors would have gone away or matured on their own if left alone.

For these reasons, most experts do not recommend screening for neuroblastoma in infants who are not at increased risk of the disease.

In rare instances, neuroblastoma is found before birth during an ultrasound, a test that uses sound waves to create an image of the internal organs of a fetus. Ultrasounds are usually done to estimate the age of a fetus, predict the date of birth, and look for certain common birth defects. Improvements in ultrasound technology or other tests may lead to more accurate prenatal (before birth) testing for this disease.

Neuroblastoma is sometimes found incidentally in young children without any symptoms during tests done to find other childhood diseases. These children will usually have a good outcome, and some may not even need treatment.

But most often, neuroblastoma is first detected because of signs or symptoms the child is having.

Last Medical Review: 03/14/2014
Last Revised: 01/22/2016