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Retinoblastoma Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 01/28/2014

Treatment Option Overview



There are different types of treatment for patients with retinoblastoma.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with retinoblastoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment.

Because cancer in children is rare, taking part in a clinical trial should be considered. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Children with retinoblastoma should have their treatment planned by a team of health care providers who are experts in treating cancer in children.

The goals of treatment are to save the child's life, to save vision and the eye, and to prevent serious side effects. Treatment will be overseen by a pediatric oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. The pediatric oncologist works with other health care providers who are experts in treating children with eye cancer and who specialize in certain areas of medicine. These may include a pediatric ophthalmologist (children's eye doctor) who has a lot of experience in treating retinoblastoma and the following specialists:

Some cancer treatments cause side effects months or years after treatment has ended.

Side effects from cancer treatment that begin during or after treatment and continue for months or years are called late effects. Late effects of treatment for retinoblastoma may include the following:

  • Physical problems such as trouble hearing clearly or, if the eye is removed, a change in the shape and size of the bone around the eye.
  • Changes in mood, feelings, thinking, learning, or memory.
  • Second cancers (new types of cancer), such as osteosarcoma, soft tissue sarcoma, or melanoma.

Some late effects may be treated or controlled. It is important to talk with your child's doctors about the effects cancer treatment can have on your child. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information.)

Children with the heritable form of retinoblastoma are at an even greater risk of forming second cancers. Children, especially those younger than 12 months, who have been treated for retinoblastoma with radiation therapy have an increased risk of second cancers. Regular follow-up by health professionals who are experts in diagnosing and treating late effects is important.

Five types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery (enucleation)

Enucleation is surgery to remove the eye and part of the optic nerve. The eye will be checked with a microscope to see if there are any signs that the cancer is likely to spread to other parts of the body. Enucleation is done if the tumor is large and there is little or no chance that vision can be saved. The patient will be fitted for an artificial eye. Close follow-up is needed for 2 years or more to check for signs of recurrence in the area around the eye and to check the other eye.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, plaques, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. Methods of radiation therapy used to treat retinoblastoma include the following:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): A type of 3-dimensional (3-D) radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles. This type of radiation therapy causes less damage to healthy tissue near the tumor.
  • Stereotactic radiation therapy: Radiation therapy that uses a rigid head frame attached to the skull to aim high-dose radiation beams directly at the tumors, causing less damage to nearby healthy tissue. It is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation and stereotaxic radiation therapy.
  • Proton beam radiation therapy: Radiation therapy that uses protons made by a special machine. A proton is a type of high-energy radiation that is different from an x-ray.
  • Plaque radiotherapy: Radioactive seeds are attached to one side of a disk, called a plaque, and placed directly on the outside wall of the eye near the tumor. The side of the plaque with the seeds on it faces the eyeball, aiming radiation at the tumor. The plaque helps protect other nearby tissue from the radiation.
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    Plaque radiotherapy of the eye; drawing shows a cross-section of the eye. An inset shows a plaque with radioactive seeds; it is placed on the outside of the eye with the seeds aimed at the cancer. Also shown are the sclera, choroid, retina, and optic nerve.
    Plaque radiotherapy of the eye. A type of radiation therapy used to treat eye tumors. Radioactive seeds are placed on one side of a thin piece of metal (usually gold) called a plaque. The plaque is sewn onto the outside wall of the eye. The seeds give off radiation which kills the cancer. The plaque is removed at the end of treatment, which usually lasts for several days.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is a treatment that uses an instrument to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue, such as carcinoma in situ. This type of treatment is also called cryosurgery.

Thermotherapy

Thermotherapy is the use of heat to destroy cancer cells. Thermotherapy may be given using a laser beam aimed through the dilated pupil or onto the outside of the eyeball. Thermotherapy may be used alone for small tumors or combined with chemotherapy for larger tumors. This type of treatment is also called laser therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the stage of the cancer and where the cancer is in the body.

There are different types of chemotherapy:

  • Systemic chemotherapy: When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body. Systemic chemotherapy is given to shrink the tumor (chemoreduction) and avoid surgery to remove the eye. After chemoreduction, other treatments may include radiation therapy, cryotherapy, laser therapy, or regional chemotherapy. Systemic chemotherapy may also be given to kill any cancer cells that are left after the initial treatment. Treatment given after the initial treatment, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
  • Regional chemotherapy: When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid (intrathecal chemotherapy), an organ (such as the eye), or a body cavity, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas. Several types of regional chemotherapy:are used to treat retinoblastoma.
    • Ophthalmic artery infusion chemotherapy: Ophthalmic artery infusion chemotherapy carries anticancer drugs directly to the eye. A catheter is put into an artery that leads to the eye and the anticancer drug is given through the catheter. During this treatment, a small balloon may be inserted into the artery to block it and keep most of the anticancer drug trapped near the tumor. This type of chemotherapy may be given as the initial treatment when the tumor is only in one eye or when the tumor has not responded to other types of treatment. Ophthalmic artery infusion chemotherapy is given at specialized retinoblastoma treatment centers.
    • Subtenon chemotherapy: Subtenon chemotherapy is the use of drugs injected through the membrane covering the muscles and nerves at the back of the eyeball. It is usually combined with systemic chemotherapy and local treatment (such as radiation therapy, cryotherapy, or thermotherapy) in order to avoid surgery to remove the eye.

See Drugs Approved for Retinoblastoma for more information.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue

High-dose chemotherapy with stem cell rescue is a way of giving high doses of chemotherapy and replacing blood -forming cells destroyed by the cancer treatment. Stem cells (immature blood cells) are removed from the blood or bone marrow of the patient and are frozen and stored. After the chemotherapy is completed, the stored stem cells are thawed and given back to the patient through an infusion. These reinfused stem cells grow into (and restore) the body's blood cells.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests. This is sometimes called re-staging.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your child's condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.