Sydney’s Story: Surviving Retinoblastoma

Vision is important. Whether it’s the sense of sight or the ability to picture your future goals as reality. Take 9-year-old Sydney; she wants to perform in a rock band, run an ice cream shop and be President of the United States. Had she not beaten eye cancer as an infant, there would not be a future to envision.

“Sydney survived cancer thanks to a cutting-edge treatment that wasn’t available five years before her diagnosis,” says Sydney’s mother, Lisa. “Research made that treatment option possible, so we’d like to thank Children’s Cancer Research Fund and the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview for all they do for kids battling cancer. “We hope Sydney’s story is both a story of hope and a reminder to other families that they don’t have to be alone during the most terrifying time in their lives.”

Sydney’s battle with cancer started in December 1999 as the family looked forward to celebrating her first Christmas. Lisa noticed a greenish-yellow film covering most of Sydney’s left eye. Sydney would be having her nine-month check up soon, so Lisa decided to wait and mention it at the appointment.

Facing the Unknown

At the exam, they were referred to an eye specialist who gave them the shocking diagnosis: Sydney had retinoblastoma, a malignant tumor of the eye that primarily strikes young children. The joy of Sydney’s first Christmas turned to the fear of facing the unknown. “Shock set in as the physician explained the urgency of starting tests and choosing treatment options,” recalls Lisa.

The next day, Sydney was checked into the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, Fairview. She was put under anesthesia to determine whether the cancer had spread beyond the eye. Luckily, the cancer was contained in her left eye only.

Treatment Decisions with Life-long Consequences

Lisa and husband Gregg were given two treatment options: remove Sydney’s eye or begin six months of chemotherapy plus cryotherapy — a new treatment that would freeze the tumor cells. “We asked Sydney’s doctors what they would do if she were their child,” recalls Lisa. “Their response: ‘Given that Sydney still had vision in the affected eye, try the chemo plus cryotherapy.’”

Sydney began her six months of treatment, during which she was hospitalized four times for complications. During the last hospitalization, the Ovsaks met staff and volunteers from Children’s Cancer Research Fund, who offered to sit with Sydney so they could take a 15-minute break.

Lisa was touched by the gesture. “I needed a good cry and to catch my breath so I could come back and be strong for Sydney,” she says. “It didn’t change our situation, but we found great strength and comfort in others’ support. As I learned more about Children’s Cancer Research Fund, I knew I needed to get involved as soon as Sydney was well.”

Sydney completed her chemotherapy treatments in June 2000. She has been cancer-free ever since and has perfect vision in both eyes.

Giving Back Through Volunteering

Ever since Sydney’s treatment ended, Lisa has volunteered for Children’s Cancer Research Fund, writing articles for the organization’s newsletter, working on various committees and speaking on the organization’s behalf. According to Lisa, speaking on behalf of Children’s Cancer Research Fund was at first a healing process. Later, it provided two types of fulfillment. First, it was a way to honor all kids who fight cancer.

“I am amazed by their strength,” she says. “If they can keep fighting, I need to tell people about Children’s Cancer Research Fund so they don’t feel like they are fighting alone.

“Second, I want to thank the organization,” she continues. “Speaking is a way to show my appreciation for the second chance our daughter received.”