Childhood Cancer Awareness Month hits home

Randy Riley - Contributing Columnist

Every month, every week, practically every day, has some special designation. Last week we had National Dog Day. Facebook was full of pictures of friends showing off their pet dogs. People were celebrating their pooch’s special day.

Later this week, we will celebrate National Welsh Rarebit Day, National Macadamia Nut Day, U.S. Bowling League Day and National Hug Your Boss Day… (yes, really). There is a special day or month for just about everything imaginable. Some are definitely goofy (Welsh Rarebit Day). Others are important and impactful.

Of special importance to the Riley family this year, is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

September has been designated as the month for increasing public awareness of childhood cancer. Many people think of cancer as being a disease that strikes people who have smoked for too many years or who have worked in hazardous occupations, like coal mining or asbestos production. But, for reasons not completely understood, all too often cancer strikes our children, our grandchildren, those innocent youngsters who should not have to worry about anything more than which Hot Wheels car to put on the orange track, or which color of chalk to use on the sidewalk.

Our kids should never have to worry about surgery, chemotherapy, or things that cause them pain, things that they just can’t possibly understand. They happily and confidently hop into their car seat and leave home with mom and dad because that’s what they enjoy doing.

They don’t understand that they’re heading to Children’s Hospital to be poked, palpated and prodded by strangers. They cry when they’re separated from mom and dad. Then, when they wake up their parents are right there with them, but now they are sore, sick and scared. Hugs and kisses always help.

This year, the entire nation has watched the heartbreaking drama of Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive tackle Devon Still and his daughter Leah as they encourage each other and lift each other up as Leah goes through one cancer treatment after another. We have been touched by the tenderness shown by her giant of a dad and by the strength of sweet, little Leah.

In June, my happy, loving little grandson, Clayton, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. The following week his right eye was surgically removed. His eye, from the retina to the lens, was completely filled with cancer. He had been blind in his right eye for many months, but because he was only 20 months old, he couldn’t tell us. He had adapted so well to seeing only with his left eye that it was impossible to notice any change in his behavior.

Mommy and Memaw just knew that something was wrong. It was hard to describe, but something just wasn’t normal. After a trip to the optometrist, things started happening quickly. He was diagnosed with cancer. Within a week the eye was removed and chemotherapy had been prescribed.

Now, we wait and wait. According to the oncologist, when his treatments are completed later this year, his chances of a complete cure are as high as 99 percent. So, we wait and we pray.

All of us need to know what to look for in our children, so here are some early warning signs for childhood cancer: 1) an unusual lump or swelling; 2) unexplained paleness and loss of energy; 3) easy bruising; 4) an ongoing pain in one area of the body; 5) limping; 6) unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away; 7) frequent headaches often with vomiting; 8) sudden unexplained weight loss; and, 9) sudden eye or vision changes.

Some of these early warning signs seem to be the type of things we see in our children all the time, but the key is that these early warning signs are persistent and completely unexplained. They don’t resolve or go away.

That’s when you bring these concerns to your family physician or pediatrician. Make sure they pay attention to your concerns. Don’t accept a comment like, ‘Oh, this is normal.’ Get a second opinion. Fight for your children.

In Clayton’s case, a preliminary diagnosis could have been made with something as simple as a cell-phone camera.

Leukocoria, or “The Glow,” is an abnormal appearance of the eye when seen in a flash photograph. We have all seen flash photos that seem to be ruined because of “red-eye.” With leukocoria, one eye will show the classical ‘red-eye’ appearance. The other eye will appear to be pale, golden or even white in appearance. This is commonly known as “The Glow.” It is not normal.

If you notice this in a photo of your child, follow-up by taking a “head-on” flash photograph of the child, looking right into the camera. It is best to have the room darkened and use a dark background. If you still notice the “Glow,” the child needs to be seen by a physician.

Several conditions, not just cancer, can cause leukocoria, but children with this condition need to be seen quickly and that visit will need to be followed up with a visit to a specialist.

Our children are our future. We must protect them. It is good that we have a special month dedicated to the detection of early childhood cancer. We will always have some kind of special day or month to celebrate, they are fun, but helping our children, that is something vital; something we must commit ourselves to doing.

Randy Riley is Mayor of Wilmington.

Randy Riley

Contributing Columnist