Retinoblastoma is a rare eye cancer that forms in the retina (the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye). It’s most common in children younger than age 5 — but in rare cases, it can develop in older children or adults.
Retinoblastoma can cause blindness, and it can even be life-threatening. The good news is that treatment can help prevent vision loss and stop the cancer from spreading.
Your child may need to get more than 1 type of treatment at the same time. Treatments for retinoblastoma can have mild or serious side effects. Talk with your child’s doctors about the risks and benefits of their treatment plan — and what you can expect.
Chemotherapy is when doctors use drugs to treat cancer. Doctors use these treatments to shrink the tumor. Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for retinoblastoma. It’s often the first treatment doctors try, and it may help your child avoid surgery.
There are different ways to give chemotherapy to treat retinoblastoma:
- Through a vein (intravenous chemotherapy). Doctors inject chemotherapy into a vein — often in the arm. Your child may also get chemotherapy through a device called a port that doctors put in the chest. This type of chemotherapy lets the medicine to travel through the body to treat the cancer cells.
- Through an artery near the eye (intra-arterial chemotherapy). A specialist called a neuroradiologist inserts a long, flexible tube into an artery (a type of blood vessel) in the hip or pelvis. The specialist pushes the tube in until it reaches the artery that supplies blood to the eye. Then the medicine goes through the tube to the eye. Your child will need to stay in the hospital for several hours to recover after they get this treatment.
- Inside the eye (intraocular or intravitreal chemotherapy). Doctors inject the medicine directly into the eye. Doctors often give this type of chemotherapy when the child has tumor cells floating inside the eye. They may combine this treatment with laser treatment or cryotherapy (freeze therapy).
Cryotherapy (freeze therapy)
During cryotherapy, doctors place a very cold tool called a freezing pen (probe) on the surface of the eye. Using this pen, doctors freeze and thaw the tumor cells several times to kill them. This helps keep the tumor cells from spreading outside of the eye.
Doctors can use different lasers to heat and kill cancer cells directly — or to destroy the blood vessels in the eye that are “feeding” the tumor.
Radiation therapy uses x-rays to kill cancer cells. There are 2 types of radiation therapy:
- Internal radiation therapy. Doctors implant or inject a small disc-shaped device behind the eye near the tumor. This device sends radiation to kill tumor cells inside the eye. The implant is temporary — doctors will usually remove it after 7 days.
- External radiation therapy. Doctors can use a machine to send radiation into the body, but this isn’t a common treatment for retinoblastoma.
In some cases, doctors may recommend surgery to get rid of the tumor by removing the eye completely. Doctors may recommend surgery if the tumor:
- Is too big to save the eye
- Could spread outside the eye
- Doesn’t respond to other treatments
Right after surgery, doctors will put a special shield in the eye socket to protect it and hold it open while the tissue heals. After about 6 weeks, doctors will replace the shield with an artificial eye.