Symptoms and causes


Because retinoblastoma mostly affects infants and small children, symptoms are rare. Signs you may notice include:

  • A white color in the center circle of the eye (pupil) when light is shone in the eye, such as when taking a flash photograph
  • Eyes that appear to be looking in different directions
  • Eye redness
  • Eye swelling

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your child's doctor if you notice any changes to your child's eyes that concern you. Retinoblastoma is a rare cancer, so your child's doctor may explore other more common eye conditions first.

If you have a family history of retinoblastoma, ask your pediatrician when your child should begin regular eye exams to screen for retinoblastoma.


Retinoblastoma occurs when nerve cells in the retina develop genetic mutations. These mutations cause the cells to continue growing and multiplying when healthy cells would die. This accumulating mass of cells forms a tumor.

Retinoblastoma cells can invade further into the eye and nearby structures. Retinoblastoma can also spread (metastasize) to other areas of the body, including the brain and spine.

In the majority of cases, it's not clear what causes the genetic mutations that lead to retinoblastoma. However, it's possible for children to inherit a genetic mutation from their parents.

Retinoblastoma that is inherited

Gene mutations that increase the risk of retinoblastoma and other cancers can be passed from parents to children.

Hereditary retinoblastoma is passed from parents to children in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means only one parent needs a single copy of the mutated gene to pass the increased risk of retinoblastoma on to the children. If one parent carries a mutated gene, each child has a 50 percent chance of inheriting that gene.

Although a genetic mutation increases a child's risk of retinoblastoma, it doesn't mean that cancer is inevitable.

Children with the inherited form of retinoblastoma tend to develop the disease at an earlier age. Hereditary retinoblastoma also tends to occur in both eyes, as opposed to just one eye.


Children treated for retinoblastoma have a risk of cancer returning in and around the treated eye. For this reason, your child's doctor will schedule follow-up exams to check for recurrent retinoblastoma. The doctor may design a personalized follow-up exam schedule for your child. In most cases, this will likely involve eye exams every few months for the first few years after retinoblastoma treatment ends.

Additionally, children with the inherited form of retinoblastoma have an increased risk of developing other types of cancers in any part of the body in the years after treatment. For this reason, children with inherited retinoblastoma may have regular exams to screen for other cancers.