Retinoblastoma is a particularly worrying eye problem which ordinarily develops in young children up to and including the age of five years old. It is a condition that is caused by a specific type of malignant tumour that forms at the back of the eye, in what is known as the retinal area, which is the part of the eye that is sensitive to light. In around 60% of cases, retinoblastoma affects just one eye which means that around a third of sufferers will have the cancer present in both eyes. This is usually the case when the condition is inherited from a parent. While the disease is normally found in the very young, it is typically quite rare for a child to be born with the condition although it can be found at birth in a very small number of babies. It is worth bearing in mind that those who suffer from retinoblastoma do carry an increased risk of developing further tumours later on in life and although the disease is not always hereditary it is estimated that around two fifths of cases are caused through faulty genetics.

In the UK alone, there are around forty to fifty new cases of retinoblastoma discovered each year and, because the condition is so rare, only those in a high risk category are screened for development of the disease. However, the test itself is quite complicated as the gene responsible for causing the disorder can create many different abnormalities which are not always easy to detect. The most common signs that a child may be suffering from retinoblastoma will typically manifest themselves as quite noticeable abnormalities in the infected pupil. In addition to the child experiencing a gradual decline in vision, the eye itself will begin to reflect light in an unusual “cat’s eye” manner and it may also become red and inflamed whilst appearing enlarged. In some cases this rapidly developing condition will also be quite painful and a common sign of the disease is for the affected child to start squinting excessively.

Types of Treatment for Retinoblastoma Sufferers

Left untreated, retinoblastoma can ultimately lead to blindness and in extreme cases fatality. However, the good news is that in the developed world at least, the chances of survival are very high indeed and the probability of preserving the child’s eyesight are also incredibly good with a ninety percent success rate when using the very latest in of retinoblastoma treatment techniques. This is one of the highest success rates of any childhood cancer treatment with nine out of ten patients being cured completely. The main types of treatment that are commonly used and particularly effective against retinoblastoma include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, cryotherapy and surgery.

If retinoblastoma is caught early enough, then the chances of a complete recovery are extremely good. Of course, it is vitally important that the cancer is caught before it has spread beyond the eye as this can have serious implications on the child’s health. If the tumour is completely contained within the eye then it will normally be treated using either cryotherapy or laser eye surgery. In the case of cryotherapy, the tumour will be frozen using a tiny metal probe which can kill all the cancerous cells in a controlled and effective way. This procedure is normally performed over two or three sessions with a one month recovery gap between visits. Cryotherapy (a freezing treatment) is always carried out under general anaesthetic so the child will be asleep throughout the ordeal. As with all surgeries, there are always a number of risks involved but these will certainly be outweighed by the benefits. In the case of laser surgery, a powerful beam is directed through the pupil and directly onto the cancerous cells and the surrounding tissue. This intense beam of light has the ability to burn the infected cells directly and kill them instantly whilst also destroying the supply of blood to the tumour which in turn will cause it to shrink and die. As with cryotherapy, repeat sessions are typically required but the procedure is much less irritating to the area surrounding the eyes.

Late-Stage Retinoblastoma

If the cancer is left until a highly advanced stage then the treatment options are a lot more limited. Radiotherapy is the preferred method of treatment if the tumour has grown quite big but not too large. With this method, a radioactive plaque is stitched onto the cancer cells which will destroy them over the course of a set number of days. The plaque is then removed and other treatments can be used to deal with any surviving cancer cells. In addition to radiotherapy, chemotherapy may also be used. This involves the injection of anti-cancer drugs which are administered directly to the blood vessel that supplies the eye with blood. Of course, chemotherapy has many well known side-effects so it is more than likely that this option will be a last resort. In the worst case scenario, if the eye is completely beyond repair then the final option is to remove the eye completely and replace it with an artificial or glass eye.