PHOENIX — Andrea Temarantz was looking at photos of her 4-month-old boy in early January and noticed something unusual showing up in the images: a lingering white "glow" in her baby's left eye.
She had first spotted the glow when her baby, Ryder, was about 3 months old. The same detail appeared in each photograph. She grew concerned, but thought it might be a problem with the camera.
Then she got a new camera for Christmas, a Nikon D3300 DSLR, The camera's flash revealed the same glow she had seen in previous photos. By then, the Scottsdale mother knew whatever she was seeing wasn't a flaw in the camera.
She took Ryder for his four-month checkup and mentioned the irregularity to his pediatrician. Within 24 hours, she was referred to another doctor, who would give Ryder's eyes a closer examination.
On the morning of Jan. 6, Temarantz received the diagnosis: retinoblastoma, a type of eye cancer. The glow in the photographs was a sign of something wrong in Ryder's eye.
Temarantz said she was hit by a wave of emotion when she received the news from the doctors that Ryder had a cancerous tumor in his left eye
“I certainly did not think it was cancer," she said. "Cancer did not cross my mind.”
Retinoblastoma is the most common type of eye cancer found in children, but is only diagnosed in about 200 to 300 patients each year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
The Cancer Society's website says screening for retinoblastoma is not widely recommended. The cancer is usually discovered by parents or relatives or during routine checkups at the doctor’s office.
Temarantz and her husband, Joey, took Ryder to Phoenix Children’s Hospital, where they learned more about what was diagnosed as a grade C tumor. They also learned about the various ways they could seek treatment.
Initially, the parents wanted to get rid of the cancer altogether by having their son’s left eye removed. But the doctor told them that because it wasn't clear what type of retinoblastoma Ryder had, it was better to seek chemotherapy treatment.
The hospital told the parents that when considering chemotherapy, it was important to understand that there may be a higher risk of Ryder getting leukemia, Temarantz said.
This was an especially big concern for the parents, because Ryder was born with Down syndrome, giving him an already heightened chance of becoming sick with leukemia.
The children’s hospital referred Temarantz to a team of physicians who specialize in treating patients with retinoblastoma at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
“As a mom, you just don’t know,” she said. “He has beaten all the odds so far. But I don’t know, maybe leukemia is what’s going to happen to him next.”
After taking a few days to think it over, Temarantz went forward with the referral to the center in New York. A few days later, Temarantz and Ryder left for New York, where he got his first treatment.
Dr. David H. Abramson, chief of the Ophthalmic Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering, said the center has treated a “handful of cases” similar to Ryder’s.
Abramson said that although Ryder’s Down syndrome is not related to the cause of the cancer, it does present specific challenges in treating it.
The technique that he introduced to the center about 9 1/2 years ago allows the chemotherapy treatment to be less invasive and more effective, providing a more suitable route for Ryder’s treatment.
Abramson said that by passing a small tube, “a catheter longer than 6 feet, but thinner than angel hair pasta,” through the child’s body going all the way to the vessel in the eye, physicians can administer less than a teaspoon of chemotherapy directly to the eye.
Abramson, an ophthalmic oncologist, said by using this treatment, the center has been able to save about 95% of the eyes treated there and work with the majority of kids diagnosed with this cancer.
Ryder is set to undergo three different treatments every four weeks, giving him a total of about three teaspoons of chemotherapy to treat his eye, Abramson said.
With a 99% chance of recovery from retinoblastoma for patients, Abramson said he has no doubt Ryder's treatment will be successful.
Though the process of treatment for cancer may seem daunting, Temarantz said that she was lucky the doctors caught it as early as they did and that her baby has already proved to be a strong fighter.
While this has been a challenging time for Ryder and his family, they hope that it will help in bringing awareness to parents and families everywhere.
Temarantz urges parents and guardians to make sure their children's eyes are routinely checked.
“Raising awareness is what’s important for us,” Temarantz said. “I’m sure stories like these have been shared in the past, but the more it’s shared, the more people will see it.”