Finding success in retinoblastoma treatment

The idea of your child having an eye removed is shocking, an extremely difficult thing for a parent to cope with, says Baker Hubbard, MD, Thomas M. Aaberg Professor of Ophthalmology, and a pediatric ocular oncologist. Actually, says Hubbard, most children who lose an eye adapt very well and enjoy essentially normal lives.

Baker Hubbard, MD

Retinoblastoma is cancer that forms in the tissues of the retina (the light-sensitive layers of nerve tissue at the back of the eye). Retinoblastoma usually occurs in children younger than age five. It may be hereditary or nonhereditary (sporadic), and is caused by mutations in genes.

To six-year-old Emilia McKibbin, having a prosthetic eye is no big deal. She knows to protect it—wearing her glasses for school and playtime, donning a scuba mask at the beach—but it doesn’t limit her choices.

Following her interests, Emilia has earned a gold belt in karate. She’s learning gymnastics. She swims. She loves to romp with Daisy, her black cocker spaniel. And while most people don’t even notice that one of this little girl’s shining dark-brown eyes is different from the other, Emilia shares her story with a few. “I tell my teachers and my friends that I have a special eye,” she says.

In 2005, Sandy and Cristina McKibbin had never heard of retinoblastoma. Like their son William, their almost-two-year-old daughter Emilia was a healthy and happy child. When a family friend noticed a white spot in Emilia’s left eye, no one panicked.


“Then one afternoon Emilia and I were in the basement, watching television,” Cristina remembers. “In the darkness her eyes were really dilated, and I saw the spot myself. My heart sank. I knew something was wrong.”

Emilia’s Friday appointment resulted in an immediate referral to the Emory Eye Center—and also an immediate appointment with Dr. Hubbard. Cristina had steeled herself for a possible diagnosis of blindness in the left eye, but she was shocked by Hubbard’s news: “He said, with so much compassion, ‘I’m going to tell you something that’s very hard to hear. Emilia has a very aggressive form of cancer, and we will have to remove her eye.’”

To read more about Emilia, visit Emory Eye magazine. For more information on retinoblastoma visit Emory Eye Center or the National Eye Institute.

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