Christmas is a time for taking festive family photos – but one mum is warning parents to make sure they check their snaps for symptoms of a rare childhood cancer after her six-month-old baby was diagnosed with the condition.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, as families around the world were busy packing up the car to go and stay with loved ones, Jade Bell was sitting in a hospital consultation room being told that her daughter had retinoblastoma, an aggressive type of eye cancer that affects young children mainly under the age of six.
The only symptoms little Tyraah Bell-Lama had were a squint and a white glow in her right eye, which you could see in some family photos where a flash had been used. Jade had absolutely no idea that these were the two main symptoms of retinoblastoma.
Tyraah needed six rounds of chemotherapy followed by cryotherapy and laser therapy and spent much of 2015 in and out of hospital as doctors fought to save her eye, and her life.
Thankfully she is now stable and the family can finally look forward to a happy Christmas this year – even more so as just a few days ago, Tyraah became a proud big sister to new baby Mariaah Jada Bell-Lama. Now Jade, 27, from Reading, has teamed up with the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust to warn parents of the signs and symptoms of this devastating cancer.
Jade said: “Most parents will take dozens of photos of their children enjoying the festivities over the next few weeks, and it only takes a few seconds to check for the white glow. I’m sharing Tyraah’s story this Christmas to make other mums and dads aware of the symptoms of retinoblastoma because early diagnosis could save their child’s eyes, sight and life.”
Jade first spotted something wasn’t right a few weeks before Christmas. Tyraah was in her Jumperoo baby bouncer when Jade noticed that one of her eyes was focusing on her and the other was drifting. Concerned, she went to her GP surgery to get it checked out.
The GP sent her to the Royal Berkshire Hospital where doctors quickly referred her to the Royal London Hospital, one of two specialist centres for retinoblastoma in the UK.
Jade said: “At this point cancer still hadn’t been mentioned but I did some searching on the internet and came across the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust’s website, which explained more about retinoblastoma and its symptoms.
“Something inside me knew straight away that’s what Tyraah had and I burst into tears. As a parent, sometimes I think you just know. But although I already knew in my heart that Tyraah had retinoblastoma in one of her eyes, it was still a shock to hear the words out loud when she was diagnosed.”
Jade added: “Christmas Day that year was really strange. We went to my nan and granddad’s house and everyone was very subdued. There just wasn’t anything to celebrate and at that point we had no idea what the future held.”
Tyraah began her treatment in January. The chemo made her poorly and she also lost her baby hair. Jade said: “One of the hardest things was going to her cot in the morning and seeing all the hair on the mattress that had fallen out overnight.
“At first I felt like I was going to have a breakdown but I knew I couldn’t let it happen. I had to be strong for Tyraah and her big brother Jaiden, who was only four at the time but was absolutely amazing. I was constantly in and out of hospital so he needed to stay with family and it was a big upheaval for him too, but he coped so well. When Tyraah was sick he would even go and fetch things for me to help.”
Thankfully doctors were able to save Tyraah’s eye – many children with retinoblastoma will lose an eye in order to stop the cancer spreading. Now Tyraah, aged two, still has to have check ups every eight weeks but she is doing really well.
2015 was a terrible year for Jade and her partner Binj, 29, as they watched their little girl battle cancer but this year, they can finally look forward to the future.
Jade said: “Tyraah has always being a smiling, happy child, who loves everybody and everything. You really wouldn’t know that she has been through all of this. She is totally different now – she absolutely loves going to nursery and playing with others and is a real people person.”
The family are currently celebrating the birth of little Mariaah, who arrived on Monday 12 December, two days ahead of schedule, and of course making plans for Christmas. Jade said: “This Christmas feels so different. We’ll go round to my nan’s again and see as much of the family as we can but this time it will be a celebration – Tyraah is happy and healthy, and is a proud big sister to our new arrival. I can’t wait.”
Patrick Tonks, Chief Executive of the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust, said: “Christmas is a popular time for taking photos and capturing memories, so it’s important that people are aware of the signs of eye cancer in children at this time of year.
“Retinoblastoma is rare and these symptoms are often a result of other, less serious, causes so there is no need for parents to panic. However, if you do notice anything unusual about your child’s eyes this Christmas, we would advise you to get them checked out as soon as possible just to be safe.”