Neuroblastomas often start in the adrenal glands above the kidneys. They can spread to the kidney and other nearby areas. Though possible, it’s rare for them to start in your kidneys.

Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that starts in immature nerve cells. It’s the most common cancer in infants and the second most common childhood cancer.

Half of people with a neuroblastoma diagnosis are younger than 17 months, and more than 70% are under 5 years.

The most common place neuroblastoma develops is inside the adrenal glands. One adrenal gland sits on top of each kidney.

Neuroblastoma can spread to the kidneys or other nearby tissues, such as the spinal cord or liver. Rarely, the cancer may originate in nerve cells inside one of the kidneys.

Read on to learn more about neuroblastoma and how it may affect your child’s kidney health.

Neuroblastoma vs. kidney cancer

About 90% of kidney cancers in children are classified as Wilms tumor, also called nephroblastoma. These cancers start in immature kidney cells. “Nephro” means related to the kidney, and “blastoma” means related to immature cells.

Neuroblastoma is another cancer that starts in immature cells. It can develop anywhere along a branch of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. It most commonly develops in the adrenal glands. Rarely, it can also start in nerve cells inside the kidneys.

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Neuroblastoma symptoms vary widely depending on where the cancer develops. If the tumor develops in the abdomen, symptoms a child may have include:

  • a lump or swelling in the belly that doesn’t hurt
  • loss of appetite
  • complaints that they feel full or have belly pain
  • problems urinating or passing a bowel movement
  • swelling in their legs, and possibly in the scrotum in boys

Tumors that start in the kidney often have no symptoms in the early stages. They may eventually cause blood in the urine.

High blood pressure is a rare symptom, but it can occur from compression of the renal artery. This blood vessel carries blood to your kidney.

Some neuroblastomas can produce hormones that cause problems throughout the body. This phenomenon is called paraneoplastic syndrome. Symptoms can include:

Neuroblastoma develops rapidly and tends to spread to other body parts quickly. About 60% of neuroblastomas in children have spread to distant areas by the time of diagnosis.

Neuroblastoma that starts in the adrenal glands can spread to the kidneys or other areas, such as the:

  • bones and bone marrow
  • brain
  • spinal canal
  • mesentery, a membrane that attaches the intestines to the abdominal wall
  • pericardium, a protective sac around the heart
  • liver
  • diaphragm
  • pancreas

Some neuroblastomas may cause kidney injury. For example, a 2019 case study reports on a 10-month-old girl who developed kidney injury from urinary retention caused by pelvic neuroblastoma.

Some treatments for neuroblastoma, such as radiation therapy, may also damage the kidneys. In a 2017 study, researchers examined the kidney function of 266 people who underwent radiation therapy for high risk neuroblastoma.

Researchers found that study participants had excellent kidney outcomes, with nobody developing a long-term reduction in kidney function. The risk of kidney damage tends to increase with increasing doses of radiation.

Which organs does neuroblastoma affect?

Neuroblastoma can develop anywhere in the sympathetic nervous system. According to 2014 research, about half develop in the adrenal glands. Many others start elsewhere in the abdomen.

Cancers that do not start in the abdomen usually start in the:

  • chest
  • spine
  • neck
  • pelvis
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Though rare, neuroblastoma can start in the kidneys.

In a 2018 case study, researchers reported one such case in a 41-year-old woman. According to study authors, there were only seven previously reported cases in adults.

Most researchers believe that neuroblastoma of the kidney originates from the adrenal medulla or sympathetic ganglion.

The adrenal medulla is the inner part of the adrenal gland where the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are made. The sympathetic ganglion is a bundle of nerves in your kidney that helps regulate your blood pressure.

The Children’s Oncology Group divides neuroblastoma into four categories to help predict its survival:

GroupDescription5-year survival
Low risktumor isolated to one organmore than 90%
Intermediate risktumor has spread to nearby areas or to bone and bone marrow90–95%
High riskcancer has spread widely in a non-infant40–50%
Tumor stage 4Scancer has spread widely in an infantmore than 90%

The 5-year survival rate for infants with stage 4S neuroblastoma is higher due to the tumor spontaneously disappearing or shrinking as the child grows.

Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that develops in immature nerve cells. It most commonly develops in the adrenal gland above the kidney. Neuroblastoma can spread to the kidneys. In rare cases, it can start in the kidney.

Most children with neuroblastoma survive the cancer. Neuroblastoma often doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms right away, but it’s critical to seek medical attention as soon as possible if your child has potential symptoms.