7 years ago, our baby boy was diagnosed with eye cancer because of a Christmas photo. He was almost two at the time.
That baby boy is nearly 9 now, and the story is becoming more and more his and not just mine–so I’m growing reluctant to go into the details with people now that he’s getting older.
But I have to share this, because we nearly didn’t find out there was a problem. The photographer knew that there was something wrong with our son’s red eye reflex, but he didn’t want to scare us or be the bearer of bad news. His wife, however, insisted, because she had seen an article about an actress whose child had a very similar presentation (that’s what doctors call it).
We’re so thankful she did.
Our son was quickly diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a very rare form of childhood eye cancer. It affects only 1 in 20,000. That’s only 300 cases per year in the U.S. In 2005, we were one of those 300.
And now that it’s been 7 years and he’s healthy, we don’t talk about it much. But this Christmas I didn’t want to not speak up for fear of spooking someone or being the bearer of bad news.
But here it is: when you’re looking through your Christmas photos this year, pay attention to the red-eye in your flash photography. The red-eye is caused by the reflection of light against the retina. Pediatricians check for it every time you’re there, and many cases of retinoblastoma are diagnosed at routine well-checks (though our pediatrician didn’t catch it because of the unusual way the tumor presented).
In that Christmas photo taken 7 years ago, our son had red-eye in one eye, and a white eye in the other. A white or milky-looking pupil in a flash photograph is a classic indicator of retinoblastoma. The pupil appears white because light is not reaching the retina at the back of the eye.
Our son’s tumor was growing dead in the bottom of his eye, which meant that the vast majority of the time, his red-eye reflex wasn’t impaired. We have dozens of photos from that Christmas that look absolutely perfect–even though his cancer was in the final stage. But one photo was snapped when the tumor seeds were up and dancing around, blocking the retina and causing a white eye in the photo.
A white eye in a photo doesn’t necessarily mean the child has eye cancer, and it’s not the only sign. (Other signs can be strabismus, a drifting eye, or a red and irritated eye.) But we found out because of a white eye in a flash photograph.
I have no medical experience. I’m just a mom whose baby had eye cancer.
If you have any concerns at all, ask your doctor. If you ever see a white eye reflex in a child, have it checked out with a dilated eye exam–it’s not that big a deal. But it could save a child’s life.
And please, don’t be afraid to speak up.
I’m so thankful someone spoke up to me.
photo credit: J Morley-Smith