Retinoblastoma (Children's Eye Cancer)

What is retinoblastoma?

Retinoblastoma is a cancer that grows in the eyes of young children, usually less than 5 years old.

What are the types of retinoblastoma?

  • Unilateral – only one eye is affected
  • Bilateral – both eyes are affected, this type of retinoblastoma is more likely to be inherited (or passed on to other people in the family through DNA)

What are the symptoms of retinoblastoma? 

Symptoms of retinoblastoma include:

  • White red reflex: Normally when we take a picture, we see a “red” reflex from light reflecting through the pupil of the eye (the black circle in the center). The red color comes from reflection off the retina, which is the normal lining of the back of the eye. When a white light reflex is seen, there is a concern for something in the eye blocking that healthy reflection. Causes for this white pupil include cancers of the eye (such as retinoblastoma) and should prompt an urgent eye exam with an ophthalmologist.
  • Blurred vision
  • Strabismus (misalignment of the eyes)

How is retinoblastoma diagnosed? 

Babies and young children’s red reflexes of their eyes are evaluated regularly by their pediatricians during well visit checks. If a pediatrician notices an abnormal red reflex, they refer them to an ophthalmologist for a complete history and eye examination. Most children with an abnormal red reflex do not have retinoblastoma.

The examination will include dilation to evaluate the retina, which is where retinoblastoma is seen. The examination may also include a gentle ultrasound placed above the eyelids. If there is a strong concern for retinoblastoma, an exam under anesthesia is recommended to allow for a thorough evaluation of the entire retina, which is not possible in clinic.

What is the treatment for retinoblastoma?

The treatment for retinoblastoma depends on the type and severity of the retinoblastoma. Children with retinoblastoma are treated by ophthalmologists and oncologists who specialize in the condition.

Blood is tested from the patient to evaluate for a change in the DNA that could cause retinoblastoma, which is found more commonly in patients with retinoblastoma in both eyes, and may be passed on to future generations.

Managing retinoblastoma includes frequent exams under anesthesia to evaluate the entire retina and imaging of the brain (MRI).

Treatments range from laser therapy, chemotherapy (given through a port for the whole body, injected into the eye, injected into the artery that supplies blood to the eye, and/or a plaque placed on the outside of the eye), freezing therapy (cryotherapy), and/or enucleation (removal of the eye).

Cure rates for retinoblastoma are greater than 95% with current treatments. Lurie Children’s team of eye experts will ensure the best treatment for each individual patient.

Furthermore, siblings, parents, and other family members of patients with a DNA change causing retinoblastoma, will have eye examinations and their blood evaluated for the same DNA change.