Retinoblastoma – A deadly eye cancer that affects children

I really pray that no one would ever have to face #cancer.

However, retinoblastoma is a cancer of the eyes that affects children less than 5 years, therefore in this blog I will discuss its risk factors, symptoms and treatment options.

What is Retinoblastoma?

Retinoblastoma is a cancer of certain types of cells in the retina known as “retinoblasts“. These cells are present in our retina during the early stages of development of the eye. The retina is the light sensitive part of our eyes which is directly connected to the brain and is responsible for vision.

What causes retinoblastoma?

Retinoblastoma is of two types depending upon the cause.

1. Hereditary Retinoblastoma

Approximately 40 percent of cases of retinoblastoma are hereditary.

In this type of retinoblastoma, the child inherits a defective gene from the parents. The parents may themselves be suffering from retinoblastoma in childhood or may simply be carrying the defective gene without being affected by it.

Children affected with hereditary retinoblastoma usually have a family history of retinoblastoma and they are more at risk of developing this cancer in both eyes. Their siblings are especially at risk of developing retinoblastoma and therefore need to be screed routinely.

These children are also prone to develop cancers in other parts of the body.

2. Non-hereditary retinoblastoma

This is a more common type of retinoblastoma with approx. 60% cases falling in this category.

These patients may not have a family history and usually only one eye is affected.

What are the symptoms of retinoblastoma?

Since retinoblastoma usually affects children younger than 5 years, the child is often unable to complain of any visual problems.

Therefore it is the responsibility of parents and caregivers to notice the certain signs and take the child for an eye check-up.

1. Whitish shadow in the black part of the eyes

This is the most important sign, and often the first sign to be noticed by the parents. Normally the pupil is black in colour. If you notice a white colour in the pupil, the child may be having retinoblastoma, and prompt medical attention is needed.

2. Squint

If the child’s eye deviates in one particular direction, it is an indication that there could be some problem in the deviating eye. You need to get it examined by a doctor as soon as possible.

3. Signs of poor vision

Young children are unable to complain of poor vision. However they exhibit certain signs of poor vision such as the child fails to notice toys or unable to focus his or her eyes on any object, the child bumps into obstacles too often, frequent eye rubbing and head tilt.

Some children exhibit constant to and from involuntary eye movements known as “nystagmus“. This is also a sign of poor vision and needs to be examined by a doctor.

The details of these Warning signs of vision problems in children are listed in my other blog. Do check it out.

4. Redness of Eyes

Sometimes, retinoblastoma may present as an acute condition with redness and pain in the child’s eyes. Have your child evaluated by your eye doctor to find out the cause.

If diagnosed in early stages, retinoblastoma is curable. However a delay in bringing the child to a doctor may lead to the cancers spreading beyond the eye to other parts of the body, thus making it life-threatening. Therefore if you notice any of these signs, do bring the child to a qualified ophthalmologist immediately.

If a child has these symptoms, does it mean they have retinoblastoma?

No. These symptoms only indicate that the child has eye problems. Retinoblastoma is a rare diagnosis and your eye doctor will examine your child to rule out other more common causes of vision problems in children.

What are the treatment options for Retinoblastoma?

The earlier the cancer is detected, the better the chances of saving the child’s vision and life.

Once the doctor examines the child and suspects retinoblastoma, a CT scan may be advised to study if the cancer is limited to the eye only or has spread elsewhere.

If it is limited to the eye only, radiotherapy and chemotherapy can be done. In some cases, the eye may have to be removed to save the life of the child.

In cases of hereditary retinoblastoma, the other eye needs to be examined regularly as these children are prone to develop cancer in the other eye too. If detected early, both the vision and the child’s life can be saved. Also, since these children are prone to develop cancers in other parts of the body, they may need to undergo regular check-ups.

Likewise, the siblings of the child need to be examined to see whether they are affected too.

Role of Genetic counselling

Since around 40% cases of retinoblastoma are heritable, it is important that people with a family history of retinoblastoma need to undergo appropriate genetic counselling before planning a family, to determine the risk of transmitting the disease to their children.

I hope I have helped you understand the practical aspects of retinoblastoma through this blog. I hope that with this knowledge, if you notice any child with early signs of retinoblastoma, you could bring it to the notice of the child’s caregivers and save the child’s vision and life.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop a comment below or email me at

I’ll see you soon in my next blog, till then take good care of your eyes and stay healthy.

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