Mar. 8, 2003. 01:00 AM
Brave boy clings to his sight


After seven years and two rounds of in vitro fertilization, Tania and Donn Charles were blessed with a baby boy they named Marcus. Elated, they felt they were ready to start a "normal" family life.

But it wasn't to be.

While staring into the round face of her happy son, Tania would sometimes catch a glimpse of what she calls a "strange reflection" or a flash of light in his left eye.

"It was sometimes very fleeting. You see it and then you don't see it. You think you are imagining something."

Like all other new parents, the Charles took Marcus regularly to the doctors. During these visits, the doctor routinely checked the baby's eyes. Marcus was always given a clean bill of health.

It was at Marcus' eight-month check-up that the doctor noticed something amiss. The exam was finished and Marcus was sitting on his Mom's lap. "All of a sudden, the doctor said, `Oh my God Tania, have you seen that?' Right away, I knew she had seen what I had seen."

The doctor referred Marcus to an ophthalmologist and they waited six weeks for the appointment.

As soon as Tania got into the specialist's office, "Literally, as soon as he looked into Marcus' eyes. he said, `I don't need to see the pictures. He has cancer'."

Once they got to Sick Kids, Marcus was admitted. Rounds of doctors and residents came in to assess his condition. Much to the Charles' surprise, the cancer was in both of his eyes.

Dr. Brenda Gallie, a world-renowned specialist in retinoblastoma, was treating their son. Used to dealing with the fright of retinoblastoma, Gallie quickly answered their number one question: No, their son wasn't going to die. The cancer had not spread to the optic nerve. His life was likely not in any danger.

Marcus was scheduled to have seven chemo treatments. He received chemo from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. He was nine months old. During this time, he was injected with three drugs.

He received his medicine in a general room reserved for children getting cancer therapy. Marcus was sedated but he cried out when his parents let him go. They took turns holding him all day. "He needed that comfort. He was calm when we held him."

By day two, he started to throw up. He was lethargic and tired. But luckily, this soon passed and Tania was amazed as Marcus bounced back quickly.

Six months after the chemo treatments was a pivotal time. The cancer can reactivate and come back with a vengeance if all the damaged cells didn't die. Unfortunately, his cancer had returned.

Doctors told Tania and Donn they thought the best option was to remove his left eye. They doubted he could see out of it because of the tumours. When Marcus was 17 months old, his left eye was removed.

Marcus adjusted with little problem. Once the bandages came off and the false eye was in place and Marcus was still Marcus, she says.

But they weren't out of the woods yet.

Shortly after Marcus' eye was removed, the Charles took a chance and tried to get pregnant again. While Tania was in advanced stages of her pregnancy, the tumours in Marcus' right eye became active again. Tania was eight months pregnant while Marcus underwent radiation treatment on his eye at Princess Margaret Hospital. Again, he bounced back well.

The Charles' second son, Nathan, does not have cancer.

When Marcus was 3, he was given a second round of chemo.

Doctors were being as aggressive as they could in a bid to save his vision. So far, so good.

When he turns 7, his eye will have stopped growing and the cancer threat will have ceased.

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