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Retinoblastoma Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 01/28/2014

General Information About Retinoblastoma



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.

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Eye anatomy; two-panel drawing shows the outside and inside of the eye. The top panel shows outside of the eye including the eyelid, pupil, sclera, and iris; the bottom panel shows inside of the eye including the cornea, lens, ciliary body, retina, choroid, optic nerve, and vitreous humor.
Anatomy of the eye, showing the outside and inside of the eye including the sclera, cornea, iris, ciliary body, choroid, retina, vitreous humor, and optic nerve. The vitreous humor is a gel that fills the center of the eye.


Although retinoblastoma may occur at any age, it usually occurs in children younger than 5 years, most often younger than 2 years. 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 occurs in heritable and nonheritable forms.

A child is thought to have the heritable form of retinoblastoma when one of the following is true:

  • There is a family history of retinoblastoma.
  • There is more than one tumor in the eye.
  • There is a certain change in the retinoblastoma gene.

Nonheritable retinoblastoma is retinoblastoma that is not the heritable form.

After diagnosis and treatment in a child with heritable retinoblastoma, new tumors may continue to form for a few years. Regular eye exams to check for new tumors are usually done every 2 to 4 months for at least 28 months.

The parents, brothers, and sisters of a child with retinoblastoma need to have their eyes checked for retinoblastoma.

The parents of a child with retinoblastoma should have an eye exam by an ophthalmologist (a doctor with special training in diseases of the eye).

The brother or sister of a child with retinoblastoma also should have regular eye exams by an ophthalmologist until age 3 to 5 years, unless it is known that the brother or sister does not have the retinoblastoma gene change. Children who have a close family member with retinoblastoma should have regular eye exams beginning early in life to check for retinoblastoma. Early diagnosis of retinoblastoma may mean the child will need less intense treatment.

Treatment for both forms of retinoblastoma should include genetic counseling.

Parents should receive genetic counseling (a discussion with a trained professional about genetic diseases) to discuss whether genetic testing is needed and the risk of retinoblastoma for the child's brothers or sisters.

A child who has heritable retinoblastoma has an increased risk of trilateral retinoblastoma and other cancers.

A child with heritable retinoblastoma is also at risk for a tumor in the brain. This is called trilateral retinoblastoma and usually occurs more than 20 months after retinoblastoma is diagnosed. Regular screening using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) every 6 months for 5 years may be done for a child thought to have heritable retinoblastoma or for a child with retinoblastoma in one eye and a family history of the disease. CT scans (computerized tomography) should not be used for routine screening to avoid exposing the child to ionizing radiation. Heritable retinoblastoma also increases the child's risk of other types of cancer such as bone or soft tissue sarcoma or melanoma in later years. Regular follow-up exams are important.

Signs and symptoms of retinoblastoma include "white pupil" and eye pain or redness.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by retinoblastoma or by other conditions. Check with a doctor if your child has any of the following:

  • 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 (lazy eye).
  • 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 eye drops 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.

    There are several types of eye exams that are done with the pupil dilated:

    • Ophthalmoscopy : An exam of the inside of the back of the eye to check the retina and optic nerve using a small magnifying lens and a light.
    • Slit-lamp biomicroscopy : An exam of the inside of the eye to check the retina, optic nerve, and other parts of the eye using a strong beam of light and a microscope.
    • Fluorescein angiography : A procedure to look at blood vessels and the flow of blood inside the eye. An orange fluorescent dye (fluorescein) is injected into a blood vessel in the arm and goes into the bloodstream. As the dye travels through blood vessels of the eye, a special camera takes pictures of the retina and choroid to find any areas that are blocked or leaking.

  • Ultrasound exam of the eye: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off the internal tissues of the eye to make echoes. Eye drops are used to numb the eye and a small probe that sends and receives sound waves is placed gently on the surface of the eye. The echoes make a picture of the inside of the eye and the distance from the cornea to the retina is measured. The picture, called a sonogram, shows on the screen of the ultrasound monitor.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • Bone scan : A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner that also takes a picture of the body. Areas of bone with cancer show up brighter in the picture because they take up more radioactive material than normal bone cells do.

Retinoblastoma is usually diagnosed without a biopsy.

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

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

  • Whether the tumor is in one or both eyes.
  • The size and number of tumors.
  • Whether the tumor has spread to the area around the eye, to the brain, or to other parts of the body.
  • The age of the patient.
  • How likely it is that vision can be saved in one or both eyes.
  • Whether a second type of cancer has formed.