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​Askham Bryan mum urges parents to recognise importance of sight tests following daughter’s eye cancer diagnosis

Press Release   •   May 08, 2017 09:00 BST

Tabitha Whitaker

Local youngster who survived rare eye cancer to host under-16s eye test clinic on Tuesday 9 May for Retinoblastoma Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017)

A young eye cancer survivor from Askham Bryan is inviting her peers to join her in raising awareness of the importance of children’s eye health this Retinoblastoma (Rb) Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017) as it is revealed[1] less than one in three parents have ever had their child’s eyes checked.

Tabitha Whitaker, 13, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, aged just three years old, after her mum, Claire, noticed a white flash in her eye and knew immediately something was wrong. Within a week, Tabitha had undergone life-saving surgery to remove her affected eye.

“I think she was diagnosed at quite a high age compared to other children,” said Claire. “There was no family history and no previous problems, but one day I noticed this white flash and I had a bad feeling straight away - my first thought was that it was a tumour and she was going to go blind.

“I mentioned it to my husband – we were on holiday at the time – but he hadn’t noticed anything. Then I asked our parents and a few other people. We even had her pinned down on the floor looking at her eyes, but nobody could see anything.

“Then, a friend of mine who had a little boy the same age as Tabitha, said she’d seen something unusual when they were playing together. I burst into tears – I knew I wasn’t being stupid then. I went home and typed in ‘children’s eye tumour’ into the computer and a picture came up with this white light in an eye and I realised immediately what it was – retinoblastoma.”

As it was a Friday night, Claire couldn’t take Tabitha to the doctor straight away and instead took her to see an optician the following day. “My husband came with us - he thought we would be told there was nothing wrong and we would all be able to go out to lunch after – I couldn’t even go in with her,” she explained. “I had Tabitha’s younger brother with me at the time, who was only three months old and I just didn’t want to hear anything - I knew it was bad.

“The optician told us we should visit the emergency eye department at the hospital on the Monday morning. I could tell it was serious – he even checked afterwards that we’d definitely gone to the hospital.”

Tabitha was seen immediately and then referred to Birmingham Children’s Hospital. A consultant there confirmed it was retinoblastoma and found she was completely blind in the right eye.

Claire added: “Obviously, it was very stressful but we were told it was treatable. Within a week, she had surgery to remove the eye. She then underwent four sessions of chemotherapy as the cancer had spread to her optic nerve but after that, the hospital signed her off and she now has annual check-ups at the oncology department at Leeds hospital. She wears glasses as she is short-sighted, but doctors say it has nothing to do with the cancer.

“At the time it probably affected us more than it did her. She had to undergo painful treatment that she didn’t like but she was too young to understand why. When she had her artificial eye fitted, it was a nightmare. It was so stressful and she had to be pinned down – she just didn’t want anyone touching it. She was so strong-willed about it, which probably helped her cope in the end.”

Although Tabitha’s cancer was found to be non-genetic, her two younger brothers have been regularly checked for retinoblastoma. It has been confirmed that Rafferty, now 11, doesn’t have the condition, while Lysander, five, still undergoes regular testing but he is due to have only one more check for the condition.

As part of Retinoblastoma Awareness Week, Tabitha, now 13, and her mum are being invited to Vision Express’ York store, on Parliament Street, to help host an under-16’s drop-in clinic, on Tuesday 9 May. The event aims to raise awareness of the condition and highlight the importance of regular eye tests for children, while offering free comprehensive 30-minute sight checks. Although under 16’s are already entitled to free eye tests on the NHS, Vision Express hopes the drop-in will encourage parents and their offspring to pop by after school between 3pm and 7pm.

Vision Express York store manager Judith Crowe, said: “We’re really looking forward to welcoming Tabitha and Claire to the store, to share their personal experience of eye cancer. It’s a great morale boost for the team to do something meaningful for such a great cause, and is a great way for Vision Express to let people know about the importance of regular eye tests for children. We hope anyone will pop along and either have their child’s eyes tested there or then or book a future appointment.

“A local magician, Tom Crosbie, will also be attending to make the event fun and interactive for the children.”

Claire thinks the fact so many parents have never heard of Rb makes raising awareness even more important. She added: “Tabitha turns 14 this year and she’s keen to share her experience. As it is a relatively unknown cancer, compared with others such as leukaemia, a lot of parents don’t know what signs to look out for. Obviously, we don’t want to frighten people as it is rare and it is unusual for children to have it, but parents need to be aware of it.”

She is also urging other parents to recognise the importance of regular eye tests for children, even if it’s just that more minor, problematic things can be picked up and dealt with sooner. “Retinoblastoma is something that is looked out for in genetic cases but we weren’t looking for it in Tabitha’s case, and she hadn’t had an eye test between the ages of two and three,” she added. “If she’d had them examined between then, maybe she could have been diagnosed earlier and her eye could have been saved.”

Joining forces with Vision Express for the week is the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT). Patrick Tonks, CEO at CHECT, will be helping educate visitors to the York store on retinoblastoma, and the signs and symptoms to be aware of.

Patrick said: “Vision Express continues to be a fantastic supporter of the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust, and we are delighted to attend their events during Retinoblastoma Awareness Week. Having Tabitha here today highlights the importance of parents recognising the signs and symptoms of retinoblastoma, and getting their child’s eyes checked by a healthcare professional if they have any concerns. We are so grateful to Vision Express for helping CHECT to raise awareness of Rb with even more parents.”

Vision Express was the first optician in the UK to roll out a protocol to ensure a quick and effective referral if Rb is suspected. The national optical retailer has enjoyed an award-winning partnership with CHECT since 2010, using initiatives to raise awareness of Rb and drive donations for the charity, so they can help more families affected.

Around 50 to 60 cases of Rb are diagnosed each year and while 98% of those diagnosed will survive, they may face having an eye removed or have lasting vision impairment issues.

Children’s sight can be tested at any age, and it’s recommended that they see an optometrist before they start school and begin learning to read. With eyes being fully developed by the time youngsters are eight years old, any sight defects that have gone undetected by that time are largely irreversible. All children under the age of 16, or under 19 and in full-time education, are entitled to a free eye test and a contribution towards glasses or lenses on the NHS.

Vision Express offers an eye test to best practice guidelines of the College of Optometrists (COO), with each Vision Express optometrist being a qualified eye health professional. To book an eye test at the York store call 01904 541104, visit 8-10 Parliament Street, York YO1 8SE or make an online enquiry at: www.visionexpress.com/book-eye-test/.

[1]1,030 parents took part in the online survey, conducted by MMR Research Worldwide in May 2017. All parents had at least one child aged between 0-6 years. 

About Vision Express

Vision Express is one of the largest optical retailers in the UK and part of GrandVision,the global leader in optical retail operating in more than 40 countries, spanning over 6,500 stores and online.

With more than 390 stores nationwide, Vision Express first opened its doors in Newcastle in 1988. Built on a passion for the profession, it has gone from strength to strength, driven by a commitment to unparalleled customer service and providing the best individual optical care, the right product and great value. Customers can select from a vast range of genuine designer brands and the latest technology lenses, through to complete glasses from £39.

With around 4,500 employees, Vision Express makes a significant difference to the communities it operates within, and the organisations it chooses to support. As part of its commitment to Vision. Taken Seriously, and as a responsible and caring retailer, Vision Express is proud to partner with a range of healthcare charities, which have touched the lives of customers and teams. These companies provide vital support to people affected by vision-related conditions. They are part of the Vision Express Charity Project and include:

  • Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT)
  • International Glaucoma Association
  • Macular Society
  • Stroke Association
  • Temple Street University Hospital
  • Brake

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