Rachel’s Retinoblastoma: Early Diagnosis through School Screening in Ireland

We had the privilege of speaking with Geraldine McGovern, the mother of Rachel, an incredibly resilient and spirited young girl. Geraldine shared with us the whirlwind journey they have experienced since June of last year, when Rachel’s life took an unexpected turn.

In June of 2022, a Public Health Nurse at Rachel’s Junior Infant School referred her for an eye check-up after she failed a regular school vision screening session. Knowing that Rachel’s siblings wore glasses, Geraldine wasn’t initially worried. However, she decided to schedule a comprehensive examination at a local hospital. During the appointment, Rachel’s eye was dilated, revealing a concerning anomaly in the back of her eye. 

That day, October 12th, became a pivotal moment for their family. A consultant was immediately called in, and the serious tone alerted Geraldine to the gravity of the situation. With a background in social care, Geraldine instinctively asked three crucial questions: “Is it cancer? Will she lose her eye? Has it spread to the brain?” Although unfamiliar with retinoblastoma, she grasped the importance of these inquiries.

The following day, Rachel and Geraldine traveled the near one hour drive to Dublin, where Dr. Claire Harnett at Temple Street Hospital examined Rachel and ordered an Eye and Brain MRI. They received confirmation the next morning that the mass in Rachel’s eye was, in fact, retinoblastoma.  She shared that it was Stage C and appeared to be contained within one eye, with no signs of spread to the brain. However, Geraldine was informed that treatment would require traveling to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, an hour flight from Dublin, as the recommended Intra-Arterial Chemotherapy (IAC) procedure was not available in Ireland. Accompanied by Geraldine’s sister, they quickly flew out to meet with Dr. Joseph Abbott in Birmingham.

Dr. Abbott performed additional tests and confirmed the treatment plan. Rachel’s unilateral retinoblastoma, which was not genetically linked, allowed for a protocol involving two to three rounds of IAC, followed by chemotherapy injections into the eye to eliminate any remaining cancer cells, and subsequent monthly laser treatments. Astonishingly, just ten days after the first IAC, the doctors were amazed to witness a 90% reduction in Rachel’s Grade C tumor. One more round of IAC was conducted, followed by three weekly injections of chemotherapy directly into the eye. 

Throughout the process, Rachel displayed remarkable resilience. She continued attending school without missing a day, and despite the challenges, she even retained some vision in her affected eye. Rachel’s monthly laser treatments are now nearing completion, although her patching program may continue for a few hours daily to encourage her brain to utilize the vision in her affected eye.

During their journey, Geraldine discovered the Gavin Glynn Foundation, an NGO that provides support to families facing pediatric cancer diagnoses in Ireland. The foundation played a crucial role in helping the McGovern family manage the logistical complexities of their frequent trips. Inspired by this support, Geraldine and her community initiated fundraising campaigns and events, raising over £88,000 to express their gratitude. John Glynn, from the foundation, visited the McGoverns at their home for a check presentation, and their story garnered attention from local radio and newspapers.

Although Rachel’s initial diagnosis did not come through the observation of the characteristic “glow,” Geraldine has encountered numerous families whose children were identified early due to this symptom. She is committed to raising awareness and becoming a resource for families facing retinoblastoma diagnosis in Ireland. The McGoverns’ journey is a testament to the importance of early detection, and they are filled with joy, knowing that more stories like Rachel’s can be shaped through increased awareness.

Rachel’s retinoblastoma journey, from the school screening referral to the dedicated treatment and community support, reflects the strength and resilience of this remarkable family. Their story serves as an inspiration and reinforces the significance of early detection in retinoblastoma cases. Through their advocacy, they are paving the way for brighter futures for children facing similar challenges.