Retinoblastoma

General Information | Treatment Options | Resources

 

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

Retinoblastoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the retina.

The retina is the nerve tissue that lines the inside of the back of the eye. The retina senses light and sends images to the brain by way of the optic nerve.

Although retinoblastoma may occur at any age, it usually occurs in children younger than 5 years of age. The tumor may be in one eye or in both eyes. Retinoblastoma rarely spreads from the eye to nearby tissue or other parts of the body. Retinoblastoma is usually found in only one eye and can usually be cured.

Retinoblastoma is sometimes caused by a gene mutation passed from the parent to the child.

Retinoblastoma is sometimes inherited (passed from the parent to the child). Retinoblastoma that is caused by an inherited gene mutation is called hereditary retinoblastoma. It usually occurs at a younger age than retinoblastoma that is not inherited. Retinoblastoma that occurs in only one eye is usually not inherited. Retinoblastoma that occurs in both eyes is always inherited. When hereditary retinoblastoma first occurs in only one eye, there is a chance it will develop later in the other eye. After diagnosis of retinoblastoma in one eye, regular follow-up exams of the healthy eye should be done every 2 to 4 months for at least 28 months. After treatment for retinoblastoma is finished, it is important that follow-up exams continue until the child is 5 years of age.

Treatment for both types of retinoblastoma should include genetic counseling (a discussion with a trained professional about inherited diseases). Brothers and sisters of a child who has retinoblastoma should also have regular exams by an ophthalmologist (a doctor with special training in diseases of the eye) and genetic counseling about the risk of developing the cancer.

A child who has hereditary retinoblastoma is at risk for developing trilateral retinoblastoma and other cancers.

A child who has hereditary retinoblastoma is at risk for developing pineal tumors in the brain. This is called trilateral retinoblastoma. Regular follow-up exams using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT scans (computerized tomography) to check for this rare condition are important during treatment for retinoblastoma and should be continued until the child is 5 years of age. Hereditary retinoblastoma also increases the child's risk of developing other types of cancer in later years. Regular follow-up exams are important.

Possible signs of retinoblastoma include "white pupil" and eye pain or redness.

These and other symptoms may be caused by retinoblastoma. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • Pupil of the eye appears white instead of red when light shines into it. This may be seen in flash photographs of the child.
  • Eyes appear to be looking in different directions.
  • Pain or redness in the eye.

Tests that examine the retina are used to detect (find) and diagnose retinoblastoma.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken. The doctor will ask if there is a family history of retinoblastoma.
  • Eye exam with dilated pupil: An exam of the eye in which the pupil is dilated (opened wider) with medicated eyedrops to allow the doctor to look through the lens and pupil to the retina. The inside of the eye, including the retina and the optic nerve, is examined with a light. Depending on the age of the child, this exam may be done under anesthesia.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the eye, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the eye. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).

Retinoblastoma is usually diagnosed without a biopsy (removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer).

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • How likely it is that vision can be saved in one or both eyes.
  • The size and number of tumors.
  • Whether trilateral retinoblastoma occurs.

After retinoblastoma has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the eye or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the eye or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The following tests and procedures may be used in the staging process:

  • Eye exam with dilated pupil: An exam of the eye in which the pupil is dilated (opened wider) with medicated eyedrops to allow the doctor to look through the lens and pupil to the retina. The inside of the eye, including the retina and the optic nerve, is examined using a light. Depending on the age of the child, this exam may be done under anesthesia.
  • Ultrasound exam: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the eye, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, such as the eye. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Lumbar puncture: A procedure used to collect cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal column. This is done by placing a needle into the spinal column. This procedure is also called an LP or spinal tap. A lumbar puncture may be done if tests show that the cancer may have spread out of the eye.

There are several staging systems for retinoblastoma. For treatment, retinoblastoma is classified as intraocular (within the eye) or extraocular (outside the eye).

The following stages are used for retinoblastoma:Intraocular retinoblastoma

Cancer is found in the eye but has not spread to tissues around the outside of the eye or to other parts of the body.

Extraocular retinoblastoma

The cancer has spread beyond the eye. It may be found in tissues around the eye or it may have spread to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) or to other parts of the body such as the bone marrow or lymph nodes.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

Recurrent Retinoblastoma

Recurrent retinoblastoma is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may recur in the eye, in tissues around the eye, or in other places in the body. Tumors that were not treated with radiation therapy or surgery commonly recur, usually within 6 months.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service