Neuroblastoma is a type of childhood cancer that starts in immature nerve cells in the sympathetic nervous system. These cells are called neuroblasts.
The nervous system is made up of the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS includes the brain and spinal cord. The PNS is made up of the somatic nervous system, which controls voluntary body movements like walking, and the autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary body functions like breathing and digestion. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system controls various activities when the body is at rest. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action. The nerves in this system control the fight-or-flight response. They respond to situations where you need strength and awareness, such as those that cause fear, anger, excitement or embarrassment.
Sometimes neuroblasts change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous, or benign, tumours such as ganglioneuroma.
In some cases, changes to neuroblasts can cause neuroblastoma. It can develop anywhere in the sympathetic nervous system, but it starts most often in the abdomen in the adrenal gland that lies just above the kidney. It can also start near the spinal cord in the neck, chest or pelvis. Neuroblastoma most commonly develops in babies and young children.
In rare cases, changes to neuroblasts can lead to ganglioneuroblastoma. This is a rare tumour that is somewhere between non-cancerous and cancerous.