News / Edmonton

Baby returns home for Christmas after battle with eye cancer

Three generations of the Vincent family has battled retinoblastoma, the most common form of pediatric eye cancer.

Alena Vincent holding her eight-week-old baby, Violet, poses with Dr. Brenda Gallie, at Sick Kids hospital, this week. The baby was born with the most common form of pediatric eye cancer and has been receiving treatment at Sick Kids since she was a week-and-a-half old. Now, she's going home to Edmonton for Christmas.

Andrew Francis Wallace / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Alena Vincent holding her eight-week-old baby, Violet, poses with Dr. Brenda Gallie, at Sick Kids hospital, this week. The baby was born with the most common form of pediatric eye cancer and has been receiving treatment at Sick Kids since she was a week-and-a-half old. Now, she's going home to Edmonton for Christmas.

Fifteen weeks into her pregnancy, Alena Vincent knew her daughter Violet would face the same form of cancer she had as a baby.

Retinoblastoma, the most common form of pediatric eye cancer, runs in the family.

But just like her mother, baby Violet, now eight weeks old, is fighting the disease. The pair left the Hospital for Sick Children on Thursday, just in time for Christmas in their hometown of Edmonton.

“I think my husband (Chris) will be excited to see her,” Vincent said before leaving the hospital. “He hasn’t seen her since she was one-and-a-half-weeks old.”

Vincent had retinoblastoma as a baby, and so did her mother. Vincent took Violet to Sick Kids hospital in Toronto when her doctors in Edmonton suspected she also had the disease.

“I’m a carrier of the RB1 gene that leads to retinoblastoma,” said Vincent, while holding a sleeping Violet.

The RB1 gene, which makes the cancer a likely outcome, started with Vincent’s mother, who also had retinoblastoma. Doctors had to remove both of her eyes.

Vincent, however, was able to retain her vision with treatment from Dr. Brenda Gallie, an ophthalmologist who works at Sick Kids.

Gallie also treated Vincent’s daughter, Violet, which she said is a fairly normal situation.

“I’ve treated quite a few of my patients’ children,” said Gallie, who has been an ophthalmologist since 1976. “We keep track of the parents for the rest of their life, particularly to remind them that their children need to be looked at.”

Vincent said having Gallie around made the situation easier.

“It was definitely a bit of a silver lining coming here to the same doctor who saved my vision, I know (Violet) was in amazing hands,” she said.

Vincent also has family in Ontario who were able to visit during Violet’s treatment. She also spent a lot of time on video chat with her husband and two-year-old son back in Edmonton.

Children of people with the RB1 gene don’t always inherit it. Vincent’s brother did not, nor did Violet’s brother.

“I didn’t think about it too much growing up,” Vincent said. “(Violet’s) not going to remember any of this, and she comes out of it with her vision, so it’s like it never happened for her.”

To treat the cancer immediately, Violet was delivered early, at 36 weeks. She had a tumour in the retina of each eye, one of which was only 0.4 millimetres in size. Tumours of that size are usually undetectable but with a tool called an OCT scanner, they could spot her tumours.

Then the doctors used lasers to burn the tumors, which would eliminate the cancer without affecting her vision.

The first sign that an infant may have retinoblastoma is a white pupil. The cancer occurs in 1 out of 16,000 live births, said Gallie, who added that many doctors aren’t properly trained to identify it.

“The doctors don’t know enough about retinoblastoma . . . they may have never seen it, so they put all sorts of other things at the top of the list,” she said. “We really try to preach, if the mother says she sees something funny looking around the eye, believe her. You have to send the child to an ophthalmologist.”

Gallie said identifying retinoblastoma early is crucial. If an infant does not start treatment immediately, it could seriously damage their vision, cause them to lose an eye, or even spread to the rest of the body and kill them.

While Violet will make it home for Christmas, her treatment is not over. She will need monthly appointments until she is nine months old, and will continue to get biannual and annual checkups in her youth, just as Vincent did.

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