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Leo's mother Maria noticed a white haze over one eye on a flash-enhanced photograph. This can be a sign of eye cancer known as retinoblastoma.

Photographs are meant to save memories. But sometimes they can also save a life.

A Toronto mother came to that realization after she snapped a series of pictures of her four-month-old son, Leo.

"I noticed a white haze over one of the eyes while I was reviewing the images on the digital camera," said Maria, who asked that her last name not be disclosed. "I thought that was peculiar so I jumped on the Internet to do a bit of research."

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She soon came across medical websites that suggested a white pupil in a flash-enhanced photograph can be a sign of an eye cancer known as retinoblastoma.

The next morning she took Leo to see a pediatrician and was referred to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children for further tests, which confirmed her suspicions.

On the advice of doctors, the infant's eye was surgically removed to prevent the potentially deadly cancer from spreading.

"Leo is now five years old and doing remarkably well," said Maria, noting that neither she nor her husband have a family history of this type of cancer.

Retinoblastoma is a relatively rare cancer with about 23 new cases diagnosed in Canada each year. It usually develops before the age of five and, in some cases, the tumour starts growing while the infant is still in the womb. A tumour can arise in one eye or both.

Early detection is often critical to survival. And, as Maria discovered, a camera with a flash can be used as a simple but effective screening tool.

"When a photo is taken, a healthy retina reflects light back as red eye," explained Brenda Gallie, an ophthalmologist at Sick Kids hospital. "In a child with retinoblastoma, the tumour prevents light from reaching the retina and instead the flash is reflected off the tumour, giving the pupil a white appearance."

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The Canadian Retinoblastoma Society, which encourages families to take screening into their own hands, offers the following tips:

  • Turn off the camera’s red-eye reduction feature.
  • Use a flash in a dimly lit room.
  • Take pictures from a variety of angles.
  • If you notice a white spot in one or both eyes, take your child to a doctor.
  • Don’t use a cellphone camera for this screening test because its LED flash won’t show the cancer.

"I find it truly amazing that a photograph can reveal something this important" said Maria. She knows of other families that ignored the warning signs in photographs and the cancer wasn't diagnosed until it was well advanced.

For more information about early detection visit:

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