EVER time Michelle McDonald picks up her son Preston from nursery his face radiates with joy.
The staff cannot believe how different he is from the unhappy child he once was.
Yet it would be impossible to guess why Preston has changed or understand the ordeal this brave little boy has been through.
Preston, two, is one of approximately 40 to 50 British children diagnosed each year with a fast-growing childhood eye cancer.
The toddler had his eye removed and wears a natural-looking “new generation” artificial eye, which allows him to cry real tears and move his eyeball.
Preston was a healthy baby but at eight months Michelle, from Plymouth, noticed he was having trouble focusing his left eye. Their GP suggested it was a lazy eye and nothing to worry about. However he also began having tantrums, screaming fits and barely slept.
If parents have concerns, they are entitled to see an eye specialist
“He was obviously suffering,” explains Michelle, 24, who is married to 25-year-old delivery driver Darren. Then one morning Michelle noticed his left eye had turned brown. Their GP sent him to the Royal Eye Infirmary in Plymouth.
“The doctor told us they had found a growth in Preston’s eye and it might be a type of cancer called retinoblastoma.”
Michelle and Darren were told his cancer had progressed so the only option was to remove his left eye.
Youngsters with a tumour in one rather than both eyes are often not diagnosed early on.
“They tend to manage quite well with their vision so problems are often picked up at a later stage than those with both eyes affected,” explains consultant retinoblastoma surgeon Manoj Parulekar.
“Retinoblastoma starts at the back of the eye, then moves forward so it is not initially visible,” says Mr Parulekar, who runs one of the two British retinoblastoma services at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
As a tumour grows children experience deterioration in their vision, pain, increased pressure in the eye and inflammation.
“The vast majority of squints will not be due to eye cancer,” says Mr Parulekar. “However if parents have concerns, they are entitled to see an eye specialist.”
Often the trigger for a diagnosis is a “white eye reflex” visible in a photograph or in low artificial light. The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) is campaigning to raise awareness of the white eye reflex, which is when part of the pupil reflects white light like a cat’s eye.
IN ORDER to diagnose the disease a red eye reflex test is carried out, looking at the eye with an instrument called a direct ophthalmoscope.
About 50 per cent of children will need to have the eye removed. Yet the long-term prospects are very good.
“Retinoblastoma is the most treatable form of childhood cancer with a 98 percent cure rate,” says Mr Parulekar.
Preston’s operation took place last November.
“When we got home Preston slept through the night and carried on sleeping peacefully all week,” says Michelle.
“He had barely been speaking before but by Christmas he was talking in clear sentences. He would play happily for hours at a time. He must have been in so much pain but couldn’t tell us what was wrong.
“Now the pressure and pain have gone we have the real Preston: a playful, happy and talkative boy who enjoys life.”