WAXAHACHIE — Toys, Apple products, clothes, and various other materialistic items are what sit atop many children’s Christmas lists, but for 20 month-old Parker Abbott, a cure for Pediatric Bilateral Retinoblastoma would do just fine. For the last 11 months of the toddler's life, the majority of his time has been spent in and out of the hospital treating his blinding cancer.
According to cancer.org, “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, these cells stop dividing and develop into mature retinal cells. [...] Rarely, something goes wrong with this process. Instead of maturing into special cells that detect light, some retinoblasts continue to divide and grow out of control, forming a cancer known as retinoblastoma.”
Pediatric Retinoblastoma is rare and makes up only four percent of all childhood cancer cases. One in every four cases is Bilateral, meaning both eyes are affected.
As told by the Pediatric Retinoblastoma website, “[...] Approximately one in 15,000 children is diagnosed with pediatric retinoblastoma per year. In the United States, about 250 to 300 cases are diagnosed per year; most patients are under the age of five.”
Parker and his mother, Leslie Abbott, are residents of Waxahachie where they have found a new hometown and an irreplaceable support system. Abbott is a stay-at-home mom who is a registered nurse that worked at Parkland Hospital with high-risk pregnancies before her son's diagnosis.
“When he was diagnosed, the tumor was large and created a lot of pressure in his left eye and his retina completely detached. He is blind in that eye because of the retina being detached, but it has reattached itself. But, he still can’t see because the tumors are directly in his field of vision,” Abbott explained.
It started with a “glow” in Parker’s left eye just three months before his diagnosis that would, in a short amount of time, cause him to have what seemed to be a “lazy” eye. Abbott decided to take her son to the doctor, and, on Jan. 11, their lives were changed forever.
“When I took him to the doctor I went in not thinking much because there is a lazy eye history in my family. I thought he would just need a patch or surgery,” Abbott said. “The doctor informed me that his retina was completely detached and I started bawling because something was actually wrong. He told me to hold on and that there was a lot more information that I needed to know.”
The doctor was then forced to inform the 26-year-old mother that her son had fluid build-up and a mass behind the eye.
“You hear the word ‘mass, ’ and you know what that means. I was alone, and it was already a two-and-a-half-hour-long appointment with a nine-month-old. [The doctor] said he was going to call another doctor and come back,” Abbott recalled. “The doctor who does all of the eye exams under anesthesia and that grades the tumors only visits the hospital once a month, and he would actually be there the next day. We went in the next day, and the doctor told us that he was going to check out the tumors in both eyes.”
At their first appointment, Abbott was not informed about tumors existing in her son’s right eye.
“After the examination, he guaranteed that the retina was detached and that his left eye was at grade D, which is the worst grade, and that his right eye was a grade B, which is now a C. We started chemo the following day,” Abbott stated.
Though he is already blind in his left eye, he is still able to see out of his right eye, for now.
“In his right eye, the tumor is closer to his nose, so some of his peripheral vision is affected. In a couple of months, they will be testing his vision with a machine to see how good his vision is in that eye. They may have to do surgery on it, “ Abbott explained. “If they did surgery and there is fluid back there, and the retina detaches, active cancer cells could spread. Those cells could move to his optic nerve which would expose the cells to the brain. And if the retina detaches, he might become completely blind.”
PARKER'S FIGHT BACK
He has yet to have an optical surgery. However, Parker does receive a form of chemotherapy in which the cancer treatment is inserted through a catheter in his leg and runs directly into his eyes.
“One week after the new year begins they are making the decision whether or not to take his left eye out. That will be tough, but I’m comfortable with them taking the left eye out because there are so many risks if they leave it,” Abbott said. “The tumors in the left are not responding to treatments. If they took both, obviously his cancer would be gone, but he would be completely blind. If it keeps growing tumors, though, I don’t want to risk it.”
For the first few months after his diagnosis, the tumors in his right eye were not growing. Therefore, he only received chemotherapy in the left eye as they watched the right. Soon after, the tumors grew in the eye which almost called for its removal but instead resulted in chemotherapy treatments in both eyes.
“It didn’t work the first time and the second time it shrunk by fifty percent. As long as it’s responding to treatment and stable, then they are comfortable with leaving his eye in. It’s just always a thought that if it spreads I will never forgive myself,” Abbott explained. “But the first priority is obviously to save his life and then his vision. It’s a hard choice to make and how does one even make those decisions? It got really bad just knowing that he might have had to go into surgery to have his right eye taken out and that he would never see me again, which he wouldn’t understand.”
Fortunately, the disease is not life-threatening, but can easily and rapidly spread. Every four weeks Parker visits the doctor for check-ups to see whether or not the tumors have grown or spread.
“If it were to spread to his optic nerve and his brain, he would have a five percent chance of living. It is not currently near the optic nerve, but it is aggressive. He has tumors in his left eye that don’t respond to treatment. If they grow and spread, it would change. For now, we are focused on fighting to save his vision,” Abbott said.
Reactions to chemotherapy differ from patient to patient, but commonly cause nausea, fatigue, pain and GI tract complications.
“After his last round of chemo, he slept about 20 hours a day for five days. His blood counts will drop, and it makes him fussy and cranky. I can always tell when they’re dropping because he starts feeling bad. He won’t eat much, but right now his health is pretty level. He has grown an inch or so through all of this, but he hasn’t gained weight. At first, he lost some weight, but he went back up to normal, and it’s been pretty stagnant,” Abbott stated.
Other than physical growth, Parker was only a few months behind other children his age to start walking. Before he had the disease, his mother shared that he was ahead of kids his age in just about every aspect.
“It can affect his learning and how he does things, and it can also cause other complications. It can cause liver, GI tract and kidney problems and even more cancer. We have a friend who has cancer from the chemo they used to treat him the first time, and they have to treat the cancer with more chemo, which may cause cancer again,” Abbott said. “With this disease, Parker already has an increased risk for other types of cancer, so you just have to keep stacking it on top of that. It makes the decision hard. You just have to do it and hope and pray that they’re fine because there’s not really another option.”
SPOTTERS, SUPPORT AND FAMILY
Since his diagnosis, Abbott quickly found that her vice is to visit the local Gold’s Gym five to six times a week where she created a family-like relationship with many of her coaches and fellow gym-mates. One of her coaches, Sam Chance, shared that the positivity both Leslie and Parker radiate make it difficult to believe that they are facing such a hard time.
“Leslie is a part of our Gold Studio program, which is separate from the gym. There are around 188 members, and we’ve become a small, community-based and family-oriented group. Many of the coaches and members have formed a family-like bond, and I think that is why we do have such a close relationship with Leslie and Parker,” Chance explained.
He described Leslie as a “fighter inside and outside of the gym” and told that Parker always has a grin on his face “that could light up a room.”
Coach Sandi Phillips noted that Leslie “[...] has inspired me with her commitment to pull through no matter what is going on. She strives to live the most normal life possible, makes time for the gym and is also able to maintain her friendships.’’
A friend and fellow Gold Studio member, Kayla Rutlidge, told that Parker is always a happy kid.
“As a mom, I couldn’t imagine going through something like that. She still tries to be happy and does the best she can for Parker. I don’t know how she does it,” Rutlidge said.
Abbott expressed her love for her Gold’s Gym family and the endless support she and Parker receive from people she met just last May.
“There are people who have come along during this journey, like from the gym and our church, as well as our friends and family who help support us and get us through. I think the support has been so important for us the past 11 months and will continue to be in the future,” Abbott said. “Our faith in God has helped. We know that whatever happens will be good and in his plan. We don’t know what is going to happen, but we believe with God and our friends and family we will get through it.”
Raising awareness and informing other parents how to look for the signs of cancer is what Abbott hopes to do. She emphasized that signs can be as small as a “glow” in an eye all the way to a visible tumor.
To keep up to date with Leslie and Parker’s story, visit Leslie's blog at www.diariesofacancermom.wordpress.com/. To make a donation, visit www.gofundme.com/parkerabbott.
Kelsey Poynor, @KPoynor_WDL