Can a Picture Save a Life?

You wouldn't think taking a picture of your child could save their life. But some Houston cancer specialists say it’s true.
Some of the best minds in medicine are coming together in Houston to form a new treatment center.
The center is for a disease called Retinoblastoma. It’s a very rare disease that can cause a child to lose their eyesight before they’re able to run. Bill Stamps has more.

Five-year-old Leah Vanbeveren is too young to understand the term Retinoblastoma. All she knows is before she was two-years-old her eye got very sick.

“Why was your eye sick?”

“I forgot.”

“No you didn’t.”

Retinoblastima is basically a cancerous tumor growing in the eye. It occurs in young children and is treatable if caught early. But in many cases the eye must be removed in order to keep the cancer from spreading to the brain — something that can be fatal. In Leah’s case, her eye was removed when she was 14 months old. Leah and her family live in San Antonio, but on this day they are in Houston for the announcement of the new Retinoblastoma Center.

“We have important news to share with you this morning, about an important consortium.”

image of Dan GombosThe center consists of Houston’s finest: an all-star team of physicians and researchers who will work towards treating and curing the rare disease. One of the team members is Doctor Dan Gombos. He says the best way to tell if your child may have retinoblastoma is to get out the camera and take a picture. Then, look at the eyes. What you want to see is red eye, not white.

“Red eye is actually a normal healthy eye. But when that reflex is white, something is abnormal. Now, in most cases it’s not cancer.”

He stresses that just because you see white in the pupils, doesn’t mean it’s cancer. But you may still want to check with you pediatrician.

Leah’s mom, Angela Vanbeveren, says she thought Leah had eye problems from the very beginning and she also saw the white when she looked at her pictures. Seeing her daughter go through all the treatments and losing an eye wasn’t easy, but she stayed strong.

“You do what you have to do for your child. And looking back on it, you know I think, wow, that was pretty big.  But in-and-of-the-moment, it’s just taking care of what needs to be done today.”

image of Leah and Angela VanbeverenAt the newsconference, doctors and researchers had a lot to say about the new treatment center. And like most five-year-olds, Little Leah was ready to go home. But first, I tried one more time to get her to talk.

“Tell him you had retinoblastoma and now you’re a cancer survivor.”
“I had retinoblastoma and now I’m a cancer survivor.”
“And you’re ready to go eat.”

Bill Stamps, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.