Did you know? The facts about retinoblastoma

The white "glow" in Arwen's left eye (right eye on photo) led to the early detection and her treatment for retinoblastoma (Rb).
The white "glow" in Arwen's left eye (right eye on photo) led to the early detection and her treatment for retinoblastoma (Rb).

Thirteen-month-old Arwen Somers-Wilson is still to experience the rollercoaster of life common to all of us.

But it is fair to say that the bright and adorable youngster and her family have gone through things that most of us will never experience in our lifetimes.

Arwen Somers-Wilson with her mum Eilise Somers of Harmston, near Sleaford.  Photo by David Dawson.

Arwen Somers-Wilson with her mum Eilise Somers of Harmston, near Sleaford. Photo by David Dawson.

At just four months old, 
Arwen was discovered to have a cancerous tumour in her left eye which ultimately led to her mother Eilise having to take the heartbreaking decision for the eye to be removed.

Eilise (33), a trained English teacher who once ran a tree surgery business, said: “We noticed a glow in Arwen’s left eye, two or three times during a two-week period, and I took her to a doctor at Bassingham Surgery near Lincoln because I wanted to know what it was.

“The doctor recognised that it might be a tumour and she referred us to an eye specialist at Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham.

“Arwen was then referred to a treatment centre at Birmingham Children’s Hospital where, 19 days after we first noticed the glow in her eye, she had the operation.”

Arwen Somers-Wilson with brothers Raif (10) and Logan Somers (8).

Arwen Somers-Wilson with brothers Raif (10) and Logan Somers (8).

Eilise is now aware of her daughter’s condition– retinoblastoma (Rb) or cancer of the retina – caused by a faulty gene which can either be hereditary or develop randomly as a child grows in his or her mother’s womb.

Thankfully, Arwen’s diagnosis was made early enough for treatment to be done before the cancer could spread outside the eyeball as happens in some developing countries where lack of awareness of eye cancer, late diagnosis and poor treatment can result in a child’s death.

Eilise said: “It was very difficult at the time Arwen was diagnosed with Rb and the whole operation happened very quickly, so there wasn’t time to think about it.

“The rest of my family was worried because they really didn’t know what to expect, but we’re getting used to it now.

“We all see how happy 
Arwen is and she has developed quite normally, if not slightly advanced in some areas. But it was after the operation that the full implications hit home and Arwen will have to live with a false (prosthetic) eye for the rest of her life.

“In the future, Arwen could turn round and say ‘I wish you’d have put me through chemotherapy’.

“But I think we made the right decision.”

The treatment of a patient with Rb largely depends on the size of the tumour, with a small one treated either by thermotherapy (applying heat to the tumour), freezing the tumour or laser treatment to the eye.

But larger tumours are treated either by radioactive plaque where a disc is 
attached to the cancerous cells and left in place for a few days to destroy the tumour, chemotherapy where anti-cancer drugs may be injected directly into the blood vessel supplying the eye or removal of the eye completely.

Eilise added: “The treatment at Birmingham Children’s Hospital has been fantastic, the consultant is wonderful and the specialist nurses there explain everything to you.

“They are very organised, they let you know what’s happening and they have everything you would need for a child there, all in a warm 
environment.

“Arwen has her check-up every eight weeks, but the hospital pays for a hotel room so that we can get there on time and not have the worry of driving from home ( Harmston, near Sleaford) to Birmingham just to get my daughter to her appointment.

“It’s one of the reasons why we’ve been so grateful to the NHS, but also the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) after we met a woman at the hospital during Arwen’s treatment who works for the trust.

“She goes into all the wards where children are being treated for Rb and, even though she’s not a doctor, she knows what you are going through and 
helps in answering your questions.”

Both the immediate and life-long challenges facing children like Arwen were highlighted during World Retinoblastoma Awareness Week last month which 
encouraged people to use their mobile phones and take a flash photo of their child in order to detect Rb early.

“My role during the week was to tell Arwen’s story to as many people as possible and hopefully, in the future I’ll be able to get involved with the charity more,” said Eilise.

“A lot of people have never heard of Rb and so you become an expert on the condition quite quickly because it’s 
important to be informed.”