Bryan and Elizabeth Shaw learned their son had a potentially fatal form of cancer when he was just 4 months old. Relying on their Christian faith to bring them through a parental nightmare, the experience then spurred the father of two to create a technique that allows parents to detect the specific type of childhood cancer shortly after birth.
“What causes people’s faith to be damaged is when bad things happen to them and they think, ‘Oh, there can’t be a God, because if there was, he wouldn’t have done this bad thing to me,’” Bryan Shaw told NPR.
“I believe there is no bad thing done to you,” he continued. “It may seem bad in the short term, it may seem bad in this life, but it’s not bad. It happened for a reason. You may not figure it out in this life, but if you can, you’re even more blessed.”
The Shaws’ son, Noah, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a form of pediatric eye cancer, just a few months into his young life, but the father would later learn the evidence was visible when he was only 12 days old.
Though 95 percent patients in developed countries will survive retinoblastoma, it can be deadly if it spreads to the brain, making early detection important.
If Noah’s affliction were detected at 1 month old instead of 4 months old, Shaw said his doctor believes the now 5-year-old probably would not have lost his right eye.
“So that’s when I realized we need to come up with a way to help parents detect ‘white eye’ in pictures,” Shaw, a bioanalytical chemist and professor at Baylor University, said in a YouTube video, referring to the telltale sign patients exhibit.
Shaw went on to conduct a study with Harvard Medical School researchers that showed “white eye” or leukocoria, can be a sign of retinoblastoma.
“Newborns and infants don’t typically get checked out by an ophthalmologist, but many of them do get their retinas scanned multiple times a week, when mom or dad are snapping pictures to share on Facebook,” Shaw said, according to a Baylor news release last year.
“From our work, we were able to create the first quantitative scale of leukocoria by which to evaluate the intensity of retinoblastoma-linked leukocoria,” he continued. “We were able to determine that the frequency of leukocoria can correlate with the clinical severity of retinoblastoma. Leukocoria can emerge in low frequency in early-stage retinoblastoma and increase in frequency during disease progression and decrease during disease remission.”
Watch Shaw talk about the research:
The study that Shaw co-authored about the early retinoblastoma detection technique was published in November 2013 in the journal PLOS One.
The researchers are currently developing software that can further detect leukocoria in digital pictures.
“I want my son to believe that what happened to him happened to him for a reason,” Shaw told NPR. “And if I can make good come from this bad stuff that happened to my son, and I can show him when he grows, I know it’s going to strengthen his faith.”