Leah Van Beveren, Diagnosed at 8 weeks old, Retinoblastoma

“I knew something was wrong the minute she was born,” said Angela Van Beveren, Leah’s mother. “There was something not quite right about her eyes.” At Leah’s two-week well baby check-up, her pediatrician assured her that it was most likely immature eye development.

Angela and her husband, Billy, went on living their lives as usual with Leah and their two other children, Alli, 4, and Noah, 3.

A couple weeks later, still bothered by what seemed to be a “lazy eye,” Angela noticed that in certain lighting, Leah’s left eye glowed. Later, she began to see a white growth through the pupil of her eye. She took photos of Leah and noticed that instead of the typical red eye, her left pupil was white; something she now knows is a key indicator of retinoblastoma. She and her husband took Leah to the doctor and they were directed to an ophthalmologist. On Oct. 13, 2003 an ultrasound discovered a mass on her left eye. The next day, Leah had an MRI, which confirmed that there was a tumor in her eye. On Oct. 15, following a CAT scan, the Van Beverens were told that Leah had Retinoblastoma, a rare tumor of the eye, usually affecting children under 3 years of age. Leah was then sent to Texas Children’s Hospital. After extensive testing, it was determined that the tumor encompassed two-thirds of her left eye. Leah was eight weeks old.

“I felt like a zombie when they told us she had cancer,” said Angela. “Never in a million years do you think your child has cancer. You hope that it’s a dream and when you wake up it will all go away.”

The doctors and the Van Beverens opted to try to save Leah’s eye through chemotherapy and laser treatments. She responded well, and on April 5, 2004, the family celebrated her last chemotherapy treatment. Throughout the summer, however, more tumors appeared, while others became active once again, and by the end of August, the Van Beverens had to make a decision to remove her left eye or continue fighting the cancer. If the cancer spreads beyond the eye, the survival rate decreases dramatically. The choice was at the same time difficult yet simple. On Sept. 22, Leah’s left eye was removed. “It was a day filled with great sadness, but remembered with joy, for when the eye was removed, the cancer was too,” said Angela.

“The staff at Texas Children’s Hospital Cancer Center helped explain to our two older children what was happening with Leah. Everyone there treated all three of my children as special including Leah’s siblings in fun activities and special events. The hospital was and still is a place the children look forward to visiting. It’s such a happy place.”

When Leah’s eye was removed, doctors replaced it with an implant which they connected to the eye muscles and then enclosed within her own tissue. Then in November 2004, Leah received her first custom-painted prosthetic eye. It is similar to a contact lens and moves along with her healthy eye. “It’s amazing; you can’t tell that it isn’t her real eye,” said Angela. “We call it her ‘hero eye’ because it saved her life.” Leah appears to the unknowing just like any other child her age. Despite a long, complicated medical history, she is a happy, resilient little girl who is enjoying her childhood.

Leah is officially cancer-free. She continues to be monitored to ensure that she remains as such, and, each year on September 22, Leah’s family celebrates the date her eye was removed as a victory over her illness. Says Angela, “We choose to think of it as a celebration day because that’s the day Leah became cancer-free.”