The tiny detail in your child's eye that could be cause for concern

A simple photograph can be a lifesaver for a child with retinoblastoma. This rare eye cancer can kill if left undetected.

Children’s Health Queensland says a slight glow or an unusual reflection in the eye highlights a problem that needs medical attention. In Queensland, there are at lease eight new cases each year.

What is retinoblastoma?

Retinoblastoma is a type of cancer that develops rapidly in the retina, the light-detecting tissue at the back of the eye. It affects mostly young children, representing 6 per cent of all cancers in children under the age of five.

The condition is commonly detected by an unusual glow of the pupil, which often reflects light like a cat’s eye. The glow is often most noticeable in photographs. It also presents as white reflex when light is shone into the eye in low light conditions, like the flash of a torch light at night. Children may also have a turned or crossed eye, squint, pain or redness around the eye, or poor vision.

Queensland Children’s Hospital ophthalmologist, Dr Jaclyn White, says early detection is critical for survival and potential preservation of sight.

“Tumours of the eye can grow very quickly and can be quite advanced by the time parents or carers identify a ‘glow’ or turn of the eye,” Dr White says.

“Treatment may include freezing the tumour, laser therapy, chemotherapy or, in advanced cases, removal of the eye.”

Although retinoblastoma is a genetic disease that may be inherited, up to 90 per cent of patients have no known family history.

Unusual reflection caught mum’s attention

Mackay mum Jess Abdullah says an unusual reflection in her son Alfie’s left eye caught her attention in February 2020.

“You couldn’t see it if you looked directly at him,” Ms Abdullah says. “It was only if he happened to move his head quickly or if the light caught his eye at a particular angle.”

The white reflection or cloudy spot Ms Abdullah could see was quickly diagnosed when she saw an optometrist. She says a rapid treatment plan at the Queensland Children’s Hospital saved Alfie’s eye and stopped the cancer progressing.

Dr White says it is important to have a GP or optometrist check your child’s eyes as soon as you detect anything unusual.

She says there are at least 20 other serious eye conditions that have similar symptoms. However, early detection and treatment of retinoblastoma offers the best chance of preserving a child’s sight.

Signs and symptoms you should look for

The condition is commonly detected by an unusual glow of the pupil, which often reflects light like a cat’s eye. Children with eye tumours may also have a turned or crossed eye, squint, pain or redness around the eye, or poor vision.

The main signs and symptoms include:

  • an eye that appears white or ‘glowing’ when a light is shone into it (such as the flash of a camera in a photograph)
  • eyes that seem to be looking in different directions (also called a ‘turned’, ‘lazy’ or ‘crossed’ eye)
  • a red or painful eye
  • an eye that is larger than usual
  • cloudiness in the coloured part of the eye and pupil.

Children’s Health Queensland says early diagnosis ensures treatment can be delivered as quickly as possible. This helps to stop the illness progressing.

You should seek urgent medical assistance if you are concerned your child could have a retinoblastoma.


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Written by Calista Bruschi

When she’s not moulding Play-Doh or dancing in the living room with her children, Calista Bruschi is an editor and writer. She has oodles of experience working on newspapers, magazines and websites. Calista likes to organise and be organised. She loves being a mum, Italian food, wine, sport and stationery. She hasn't sleep a full night in more than five years and is powered by coffee.

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