A brave father who watched his two children battle cancer, 30 years after he lost his eye to the same disease, has spoken of his heartbreak.
Luke Rollinson, 36, knows all too well the trauma of childhood cancer – he went through it himself at 18 months old and both his son, four, and daughter, two, were diagnosed with retinoblastoma shortly after birth.
The NSW father-of-two spoke to FEMAIL about the sickening feeling of being told he had passed on his cancer gene to his newborn children.
‘We look back now and think, “How did we even get through this?”,’ Luke said.
‘How can a woman carry a baby for nine months and then be told days later that baby needs chemo. It just breaks my heart.’
Luke lost his right eye to retinoblastoma some 30 years ago but was unaware his son, Eli, would be born with the same genetic mutation which causes the cancer.
When Eli was four months old, Luke and his wife Katie noticed a white reflex in his eye when taking flash photographs – a tell-tale sign that cancer may be brewing behind the retina.
Doctors then found a small cluster of tumours and quickly attacked it with laser and cryotherapy, saving his eye from the same fate Luke suffered over three decades earlier.
‘We were a little ignorant of the chances of me passing on the retinoblastoma gene onto our kids. We knew there was a chance, but we weren’t sure if my cancer was random or genetic,’ Luke explained.
Retinoblastoma occurs when abnormal cells in the retina (the light-sensing area at the back of the eye) grow in an uncontrolled way. It usually occurs in young children, and can affect one or both eyes.
Retinoblastoma is more common in children under 3 years of age, although it can occur at any age.
Symptoms may include: A pupil that appears white instead of red when a light is shone into it (e.g. in a photograph) red or painful eye larger than usual eyeball, cloudiness in the iris (the coloured part of the eye) and the pupil eyes that seem to be looking in different directions (also called ‘lazy eye’).
Source: Cancer Australia
But the horror of discovering cancer lurking behind one child’s eye was only the beginning for Luke and his wife.
When Katie was pregnant with their daughter, Harper, the couple were prepared for the worst and underwent prenatal testing to find their baby girl also carried the gene.
Eight days after her birth, doctors found a large tumour behind her right eye and after only 12 days in this world Harper started chemotherapy – the second youngest baby at the time at Westmead hospital in Sydney’s west.
‘The first five months of her life were spent in hospital having chemo. That was something we struggled with – on that eighth day we cried for a month,’ Luke said.
‘If we had have waited months to check Harper for the gene like we did with Eli… it makes me sick in the gut to think where she might be now.’
‘And if Eli was in Harper’s position, who knows what would have happened. You could say something was looking over us, but then again I have had two kids with cancer,’ he added.
Fortunately both Eli and Harper’s tumours were caught in time to save their eyes and to shrink the tumours before they could spread.
Luke says he is thankful they tested each of their children when they did – and is now giving back to the community of supporters who helped his family in their darkest hours.
‘The organisations we support, such as the Children’s Cancer Institute and Camp Quality, did so much for us. Things we will never forget,’ he said.
Luke also recently participated in a 12-hour cycle Endure for a Cure and raised $30,000 for Children’s Cancer Institute after biking more than 100km.
The relieved father says he and his family are now in a ‘good place’ and are in the monitoring phase after catching both cancers early.
The Rollinson family still frequents the hospital, albeit only for regular checkups, and Luke says he is glad his son and daughter will hopefully never clearly remember their battles with cancer.
‘They won’t remember it. A six or seven-year-old might but they were both so young… so we think that is a positive.’