Without treatment, retinoblastoma — a rare eye cancer that begins in the retina — can lead to blindness. Chemotherapy, laser therapy, or surgery may be needed to treat retinoblastoma.

About 8,000 children develop retinoblastoma each year. This rare eye cancer begins in the retina. The retina is near the optical nerve, and it’s responsible for converting light into electrical signals, which are transmitted to the brain and create the images that you see.

Retinoblastoma most often occurs in very young children. However, it can affect people of all ages. Early symptoms may include a pupil that’s white when light is shone on it, crossed eyes, and reduced vision.

Retinoblastoma can cause blindness and even death without treatment. Treatment may involve chemotherapy, laser therapy, or surgery.

If retinoblastoma is undetected and untreated, a tumor may develop and continue to grow. Eventually, the size and location of the tumor can prevent normal eye function and cause a loss of vision.

As cancerous cells grow, they may spread to other parts of the body outside the eye, like the brain. This can negatively affect vision.

Certain treatments for retinoblastoma may also lead to blindness. For example, laser therapy can result in scar tissue or damage to the inside of the eyeball, leading to vision loss.

If retinoblastoma spreads, the whole eyeball may need to be removed in a surgery called an enucleation operation. If this treatment is needed in both eyes, it will result in complete blindness.

It’s important to discuss with your doctor the effect that various treatments may have on your or your child’s future vision and factor this into any treatment plan.

Symptoms of retinoblastoma may include:

  • a pupil that’s white when light is shone into the eye
  • crossed eyes, or one eye that drifts in the opposite direction
  • pain, swelling, or redness in the eye region
  • watery eyes
  • reduced vision

You may notice that a child with retinoblastoma brings objects closer to their face to view them. They may also trip more often or bump into things as they try to navigate.

It’s important to notify your child’s doctor if you notice any of these symptoms. This will allow them to rule out retinoblastoma as well as other serious vision-related conditions.

According to one 2018 study, retinoblastoma is typically due to mutations in the RB1 gene. These mutations can be inherited or occur spontaneously.

Every individual has two copies of the RB1 gene — one from each parent. For retinoblastoma to occur, both copies in a single retinal cell must undergo a mutation.

Fewer than 3% of cases occur without a mutation to the RB1 gene. These cases tend to present before a child reaches 6 months old.

A study from 2021 suggests that retinoblastoma is responsible for fewer than 2% of diagnosed children’s cancers. In high income countries, fewer than 5% of children are expected to pass away as a result of retinoblastoma. In African countries, however, up to 70% of children may not get a diagnosis in time to survive.

The likelihood of developing retinoblastoma is equal for all sexes. Ethnicity does not seem to affect the chances of a child developing retinoblastoma, either. Only 10% of children with retinoblastoma have a family history of the condition.

Retinoblastoma is most common in children younger than 5 years old, but it can affect older children and adults too. For this reason, it’s important to watch for symptoms of the condition throughout your life and seek prompt medical assistance if you notice any.

A 2019 study reported legal blindness in 19% of the children studied with bilateral retinoblastoma. Visual impairment was found in 38%.

There are no treatments to prevent retinoblastoma, but it may be curable when a doctor diagnoses it early. The exact treatment plan they suggest will depend on the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread to any other parts of the body.

Treatment for retinoblastoma may include:

Retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that begins in the retina, is most common in children younger than 5 years old.

Even before your child can talk, it’s important to watch for symptoms of this condition — such as crossed eyes — because early treatment reduces the risk of serious complications or blindness. Without treatment, it’s possible for retinoblastoma to lead to blindness or even death.

Treatment for retinoblastoma may include chemotherapy, laser therapy, or surgery. A doctor will advise you on the best treatment plan based on the tumor’s size and whether it has spread.