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Landon Thompson looks like a happy, healthy 8-month-old.
He smiles. He giggles. His blue eyes twinkle as he plays with his 5-year-old brother, Benjamin, and his parents, Pat and Stephanie.
Behind those beautiful, blue eyes are tumors that not only threaten Landon's vision, but also his young, precious life.
He has a rare form of cancer called bilateral retinoblastoma. It is a type of eye cancer in children, and it has completely transformed the lives of Landon and his family.
Before his diagnosis, life was close to perfect for the Thompson family. Pat and Stephanie, who have been married for six years, had two beautiful boys, good jobs and a new home right on the outskirts of Lebanon.
When Landon was a month old, Pat noticed that his left eye drifted off to the side, but he thought it was just a lazy eye. Landon's pediatrician said his eye's muscle was probably just weak, and that it would probably fix itself. But it didn't. So, Landon's pediatrician referred him to an ophthalmologist in Louisville.
On Jan. 7, Stephanie and Pat took Landon to his ophthalmologist appointment. On the drive there, Stephanie remembers being worried that her son would have to get glasses.
"I was freaked out about that," Stephanie said.
But, when the ophthalmologist examined Landon, he knew immediately what was wrong with him.
"He had a tumor behind his left eye. After he said 'tumor,' I immediately thought cancer. I just shut down after that."
Pat said he didn't know what to think.
"'Cancer' is all I heard," he said. "I didn't understand how this could happen to an innocent baby."
According to the American Cancer Society, retinoblastoma is a cancer that starts in the retina, the very back part of the eye. The eyes develop very early as babies grow in the womb. During the early stages of development, the eyes have cells called retinoblasts that divide into new cells and fill the retina. At a certain point, the cells stop dividing and develop into mature retinal cells. Rarely, something goes wrong with this process. Instead of developing into special cells that detect light, some retinoblasts continue to grow rapidly and out-of-control, and form a cancer known as retinoblastoma.
After the diagnosis...
Immediately after Landon's diagnosis, doctors scheduled appointments for him at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. That's where they found out that Landon had developed retinoblastoma in both eyes.
According to the team of doctors who examined Landon, the cancer was hereditary.
Stephanie and Pat were just overwhelmed with the news.
"I don't know if there are words to describe it. It was just a blur," Stephanie said. "It was heart wrenching. We just couldn't comprehend it all."
Stephanie said she felt guilty, as if she had done something to cause it.
"One of the first questions I asked the oncologist was if I had done something wrong when I was pregnant," she said. "You just question everything."
But, the doctors reassured her that it was hereditary, and there was nothing she could have done to prevent it. The team of doctors helped them feel much better about the situation.
"They seemed like a family," Pat said. "They wanted the best for him. I knew he was in good hands."
Stephanie felt the same way.
"The doctors are just so positive about everything," she said. "I know they are going to take care of Landon. He's not a number... he's Landon. Their first goal is to take care of him."
Within a few days of getting Landon's diagnosis, he was undergoing his first round of chemotherapy (through a central line in his chest). Doctors had discovered with an M.R.I. that his left eye was in much worse shape than his right eye. Stephanie said the first round of chemotherapy wasn't that bad, but the second round doctors actually inserted it in his left eye. And, during every procedure, Landon was put under anesthesia. All of it was so scary, Stephanie said.
"It was so hard seeing him go through the chemo," she said.
But, doctors told Stephanie and Pat that younger children actually tolerate chemo better than adults. However, the chemo that was actually inserted in his eye was awful, Stephanie said, causing his eye to get very swollen, turning it black and purple.
"It looked like he had been in a terrible fight," she said. "That was really hard to see him like that. I mean, you think you have a healthy six-month-old baby and the next thing you know he's getting chemo. It has given us a whole different perspective on everything."
After starting Landon's chemo treatments, Stephanie was forced to quit her job as a nurse to be home with him because he needs constant medical care. He has to have blood drawn twice a week and get shots every day for 10 to 14 days. He can't go anywhere or be around crowds because of the threat of germs. So, the family spends most of their time at home.
Life with Landon...
Since Landon's diagnosis, life has changed dramatically for the Thompson family.
In their kitchen hangs a huge dry-erase board to keep track of Landon's daily medications, shots, etc. The minute Landon's brother, Benjamin, gets home from preschool at St. Augustine, he must take a shower to get rid of any possible germs. And the house must be kept as clean as possible, Stephanie said.
The new way of life has almost become routine now, she said.
Things have gotten tough for the family financially, as well. Not only do they not have Stephanie's income, but the medications Landon must take are also very expensive.
"We haven't even started getting bills from the hospital yet," Stephanie said.
When Stephanie and Pat go to Cincinnati, they often have to stay in hotels, but they have been able to stay at the Ronald McDonald house at least once, which was wonderful, they said.
"It's awesome," Stephanie said. "They have anything you need. And, it's right beside the hospital."
Stephanie and Pat will be spending a great deal of time in Cincinnati because Landon has at least four more chemo treatments to undergo. This week, he will be undergoing his third of six treatments. And, so far, the treatments seem to be working. After the first treatment, doctors said the tumor behind his left eye had shrunk 90 percent.
"We know the treatment is helping him," Stephanie said.
Doctors are hopeful Landon will have good vision with his right eye, but they don't think they will save the eyesight in the left eye. However, they think they will be able to save the eye itself. At one time, the only way to cure a child of this disease would be to remove the eyes, Stephanie said.
Landon will have to undergo treatments and exams until he's five years old. But, doctors have encouraged Stephanie and Pat that the cure rate for this type of cancer is 96 percent.
However, Landon will be more susceptible to developing other cancers later on in life.
"It's going to be a constant thing he's going to be faced with his whole life," Stephanie said.
The entire family, including their son Benjamin, is going to undergo genetic testing to see if they have the gene that could pass this disease on.
It's unlikely that Benjamin has it, but they want to make absolutely sure, Stephanie said.
Benjamin, himself, has had lots of questions during this entire experience, she said. It's been tough on him, as well, because his parents have had to spend quite a bit of time away from him during trips to Cincinnati. And, anytime Benjamin gets sick he has to stay with other family members because he could make Landon sick. That has been very hard for Stephanie to deal with as his mother.
"When Benjamin is sick, I can't even take care of him," she said.
But, thanks to help from family and friends, Stephanie and Pat have had plenty of support. Pat said they've had complete strangers give them money to help with medical expenses, and his coworkers at Curtis Maruyasu have been extremely supportive, he said.
Stephanie's mother, Teresa Wilson, has been a huge help, even while battling cancer herself. She was diagnosed with colon cancer in September of 2010, and she had to have a portion of her colon removed. Thankfully, she's had positive reports from doctors and is now cancer free. But watching her daughter and grandson go through this has been very painful, she said.
"I just wish it could be me instead of him," Teresa Wilson said.
Stephanie said watching her mom battle colon cancer and then having her own son diagnosed with cancer has tested her faith.
"I don't understand why this would happen," she said. "But, I just feel like there was a reason. God knew this was going to happen to him. That's why he took care of everything with mom. Because He knew I couldn't handle it on my own."
Stephanie said she thinks everything happens for a reason, and the scary experience has actually made her faith stronger.
"You never know what today is going to bring. We have ups and downs everyday," she said. "But, you don't worry about the little things in life anymore. It's brought us closer together as a family. You learn what's most important."
St. Baldrick's Day is scheduled for March 19
Citizens National Bank's annual St. Baldricks event is set for Saturday, March 19, at Saint Augustine Grade School's gymnasium from 1-3 p.m.
Go to www.stbaldricks.org/events/cnb2011. That is the direct link to CNB's event page and where people can sign up as a volunteer, shavee, make donations, read about upcoming events and more.
CNB's goal this year is to have 111 shaved heads and $19,000 in donations. If CNB can achieve its goal, it will bring the bank's grand total for the past five years to $111,000 in 2011.
For more information, go to the above listed website, call (270) 692-2113 or stop by Citizens National Bank of Lebanon at 149 West Main St. and ask the CNB staff.