Diagnosing Deadly Eye Cancer ... With a Picture

When 32-year-old Megan Santos of Riverview, Fla., noticed that one of her baby daughter's eyes was a slightly different color than the other, her intuition told her that something was wrong.

Concerned, Santos posted a picture of 1-year-old Rowan Santos on the online pregnancy community BabyFit.com, of which she is a member. The picture clearly showed a hazy, white glow in Rowan's left eye -- an atypical reflection of the camera flash not seen in the infant's other eye.

She soon received a message from Madeleine Robb, another 32-year-old mother living in Stretford, the United Kingdom, encouraging her to ask her doctor about a rare but serious cancer that can bring about such a color difference.

Santos followed Robb's advice. And as it turned out, Santos' post may have well saved her child's life.

"After I put the picture up, she saw it, and she sent me a private e-mail in which she said that Rowan might have retinoblastoma in her left eye," Santos said. "She said, 'Not to worry you, but I think you should look at this Web site.'"

The Web site detailed the condition known as retinoblastoma -- a potentially deadly form of childhood cancer that can affect one or both eyes. Immediately, Santos contacted her doctor. She saw him the next day, on the morning of Aug. 8, and he, in turn, referred her to ophthalmology and cancer specialists.

A battery of scans and other tests revealed that Rowan did, in fact, have a cancerous tumor growing on the retina of her left eye.

"Her prognosis is good, as far as the doctor can tell," Santos said. "[The cancer] had not yet reached her optic nerve, which would have then brought it directly to her brain."

But with the favorable prognosis for survival came devastating news.

"She is going to lose her eye," Santos said. "That's a definite."

Doctors plan to treat the tumor by burning away the cancerous tissue with a laser. Rowan will undergo four rounds of chemotherapy, followed by surgery to remove her eye and the tumor, and then three more rounds of chemotherapy. The surgery to remove Rowan's left eye will be in November or December.

Still, Santos is thankful that the cancer was detected early enough to save her daughter's life. And ophthalmic experts said that her quick action was crucial in ensuring her daughter's survival.

"She probably saved her child's life," said Dr. Susan Taub, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Northwestern University in Chicago. "An ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure. This tumor kills children."

Deadly Cancer Hides in the Eye

Retinoblastoma is a cancer that strikes children as late as age 5, though it may start even in the womb. It arises from the cells of the retina, the spot of nerves at the back of the eye that captures light and sends vision signals to the brain.

Dr. Linn Murphree, director of ocular oncology at the Children's Hospital Los Angeles' Retinoblastoma Center, said the cancer is an exceedingly rare one, affecting only about 1 in 15,000 babies every year.

"There are probably only 300 new cases a year in all of North America," Murphree said.

But while the disease is rare, it is also ruthless. Worldwide, 87 percent of children stricken with retinoblastoma die. Survival is best in developed countries, but even among the children who have the disease in these nations, 97 percent suffer moderate to severe visual impairment as a result.

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