A mum is urging parents to look out for symptoms of a rare childhood cancer in their Christmas photos after her son needed surgery to remove his eye over the festive period.
Noah Blanks was about to turn four when he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma after his dad spotted a white glow in his eye in a picture of the youngster.
After months of chemotherapy failed to shrink the tumour in his eye, Noah went on to have the lifesaving operation in December 2017.
Now his parents Laila Gaudry and Ollie Blanks, from Eastbourne, want to help the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) raise awareness of the rare disease, which mainly affects babies and children under the age of six and sees around one child a week diagnosed in the UK.
“Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but for us it was the moment we discovered that the battle to save our little boy's eye had been in vain,” explains Laila, 29.
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It was summer 2017 when dad Ollie first noticed a strange reflection in Noah's left eye.
After googling the symptom, he found himself reading about the eye cancer retinoblastoma.
The two main symptoms are a white glow in a child's eye, seen in photos when a flash is used or in dim lighting, and a squint.
After taking further snaps of Noah, and he and Laila were horrified when one showed the white reflection.
They rushed Noah to A&E and after being referred to specialists he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma.
“When the word cancer was first mentioned we looked at each other as we fell apart,” Leila says. “While we waited for Noah's appointment at the Royal London Hospital, one of two specialist centres for retinoblastoma in the UK, we just kept telling ourselves that as long as it hadn't spread, we would get through it.”
Doctors explained that Noah had a grade D tumour and that chemotherapy might work but Noah could still face surgery to remove his eye, known as enucleation, if the tumour didn't respond to treatment.
In the end Noah had six cycles of chemotherapy, but complications meant he suffered an allergic reaction to the medication and developed a fever.
As his treatment continued, Noah seemed to suffer fewer complications and tests showed that the tumour was responding well to treatment, so the family were hopeful that the end was in sight and they could celebrate as a family at Christmas.
But when the family returned to hospital a few days before Christmas, they were told Noah's tumour had grown substantially and the best option was enucleation.
“After everything Noah had been through I couldn't believe it was all for nothing,” Laila says. “What was meant to be a bit of good news before Christmas turned into our worst nightmare.”
Noah had the surgery on 27 December 2017. Having sought advice from the medical team and other parents the family decided to let him enjoy his Christmas and didn't tell him about the procedure until Boxing Day.
His mum says he was initially confused about what to expect but took it very well.
“Noah had his temporary prosthetic eye fitted four weeks after his operation,” Laila says. “I was truly amazed at how good it looked and how well he coped.”
Thankfully at his first check-up post-surgery Noah was given the all clear and he is now six years old and enjoying life at home with his big brother, Jake.
Having spent a fearful Christmas in 2017, the family is really looking forward to the festive period this year.
“Life is so much better and I hope our story can help other families to know that there really is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Patrick Tonks, Chief Executive of the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust, hopes the family’s story will help encourage other parents to look out for symptoms of the condition.
“Christmas time always provides lots of great photo opportunities,” he says. “We urge all parents to be aware of the most common symptoms of retinoblastoma – the two main signs being a glow in the eye and a squint (lazy eye)."
“Retinoblastoma is extremely rare so there's no need for parents to panic but it's best to get your child checked out as soon as possible if you have any concerns at all. You can take them to your GP, a local optician or an ophthalmology department.”