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Optician helped 'save her niece's life' after spotting cancer during an eye test

An optician spotted her niece's cancer during an eye test. Olivia pictured with her mum Ewelina Skwarlo. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)
An optician spotted her niece's cancer during an eye test. Olivia pictured with her mum Ewelina Skwarlo. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)

An optician has shared how she may have helped "save her niece's life" after spotting cancer during an eye test.

Laura Leafe, 37, from Great Heck, North Yorkshire, says she became "concerned" about her niece, Olivia, then two, after her sister-in-law, Ewelina Skwarlo, 34, spotted an "unusual white glow" in her daughter's eye in February 2022.

Skwarlo, from Whitley Bridge, North Yorkshire, took some photos and sent them to Leafe before taking Olivia to see her aunt for an eye test after two days.

Leafe says she was left "shocked" after spotting what she believed to be signs of retinoblastoma – a rare type of eye cancer – and referred Olivia to Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, where she was seen a few days later.

Following an examination at the hospital, doctors confirmed that Olivia had eye cancer and she was sent to Birmingham Women's and Children's Hospital for treatment.

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Olivia's mum spotted a white glow in her eye just after her second birthday. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)
Olivia's mum spotted a white glow in her eye just after her second birthday. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)

Olivia, now three, underwent intra-arterial chemotherapy, which thankfully shrank the tumour where it has remained under control, but there are still small parts to treat, meaning she will require monthly check-ups.

"I was already concerned due to the photograph Ewelina had sent me, but I was shocked to see what I suspected to be a retinoblastoma," Leafe says of her niece's eye test.

"After the shock, I was very thankful to be an optometrist and in the position to be able to help at one of the most stressful times of my family’s life.

"I am so glad Ewelina asked about the ‘reflection’.

"If I hadn’t been in this profession the diagnosis may have come much later."

Olivia's mum, Skwarlo, first noticed an unusual white glow in her daughter's eye just after her second birthday.

Olivia has now undergone treatment for cancer, pictured with her mum Ewelina Skwarlo and dad Oliver Philips. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)
Olivia has now undergone treatment for cancer, pictured with her mum Ewelina Skwarlo and dad Oliver Philips. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)

"One day when she was watching TV, I noticed a strange glare in her right eye," she explains.

"I was observing her eye in different angles as the glare was not easily visible.

"I decided to take a few photos when the glare was more visible and send them to her dad to see what he thought.

"I didn't think it was anything serious, but my instinct was telling me to check what it was," Skwarlo, who works in retail, continues.

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"I decided to send the photos to Olivia’s aunt, Laura, who is an optometrist. In the meantime, I started to search on Google ‘glare and reflection’ in the eye.

"I came across retinoblastoma and started to read about it. I started to panic that the white glow may be retinoblastoma, which I had never heard of before.

"Laura confirmed an appointment and we went to have it checked.”

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Olivia's cancer is currently under control. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)
Olivia's cancer is currently under control. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)

The Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) says typical signs of retinoblastoma include a white glow which may only appear in certain lights or a squint, as well as a change in the appearance of the eye or a swollen eye, although often only one sign or symptom is present.

After the eye exam, Leafe said there was a chance the glow was a retinoblastoma – the most common type of eye cancer in children.

Olivia was referred to hospital where a diagnosis of retinoblastoma was confirmed.

"We were heartbroken, but we were trying to behave as normally as possible in front of Olivia as she was as happy as usual," Skwarlo explains.

"We cannot stress enough how important it is to observe your child and if there is something suspicious to have it checked straight away."

As well as four rounds of intra-arterial chemotherapy - where doses of cancer-killing medicine are injected directly into the eye – Olivia also had five rounds of dual-agent intravitreal chemotherapy, which ended in August 2022.

Oliva, now three, underwent intra-arterial chemotherapy and the tumour shrank. Pictured with her dad. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)
Oliva, now three, underwent intra-arterial chemotherapy and the tumour shrank. Pictured with her dad. (Ewelina Skwarlo/SWNS)

Now Olivia receives monthly check-ups as well as cyro-freezing and laser treatments to keep the cancer at bay.

"It is a constant worry about the cancer cells being under control and if there is a chance to get rid of it totally," Skwarlo adds.

"Going through this experience made us stronger as a family, as we know it is important to be strong for each other."

Richard Ashton, chief executive of CHECT, says: “Retinoblastoma is rare, with around one baby or young child being diagnosed in the UK each week.

"Symptoms can be quite subtle, and children often seem well in themselves which can make it hard to diagnose.

"In just under half of all cases, a child must have an eye removed as part of their treatment.”

“We are grateful that Olivia’s case, her symptoms were recognised by her parents, her aunt and the hospital teams, and an urgent referral was made so that she could receive treatment."

Additional reporting SWNS.