Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund Helps Kids like Jeff Healey’s Son Save Sight

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When Jeff Healey was born in 1966 with eye cancer retinoblastoma that claimed his sight at age 1, the odds were against him at the time. The medical community had not advanced to the point that his eyes could be saved. That’s why the internationally acclaimed singer-guitarist was such a big supporter of the global organization Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund, which formed in 2004 and has helped so many children with the same disease like his son.

Healey passed away from another form of cancer (sarcoma) in 2008 at age 41.  According to the American Cancer Society, survivors of childhood cancer have an increased risk of developing other cancers later in life.

Today, his widow Cristie — step-mom to Healey’s daughter Rachel, now 19, and mom to Derek, 9 — continues to talk about Daisy’s whenever she can, like when she’s doing interviews about Healey’s induction this Saturday (Oct. 18) into Canada’s Walk of Fame and his posthumous Cineplex Legends Award taking place in his hometown of Toronto.

“Our whole family are huge supporters of Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund, which is a childhood retinoblastoma research foundation and, for us, they really have been an amazing part of Derek’s life. I really credit them for Derek having his sight today. He was born with the same retinoblastoma that Jeff lost his sight to,” says Cristie. “It’s incredible. Derek doesn’t even wear glasses. He has some scar tissue from certain treatment, but his eyes are fully intact and he has great vision. Within the decade of Rachel being born to Derek being born, they made so much progress.”

The odds are less for children born with the disease in developing countries. On the web site for Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund — named after a British girl who received specialized treatment at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children that wasn't available in the U.K. — it says “Every hour, a child dies from retinoblastoma.  Almost all of these children live in economically less developed countries, where awareness and access to timely, appropriate medical care and compassionate family support is very limited.

“Retinoblastoma is highly curable, and 96 percent of children treated in developed countries survive.  However, 85 percent lose one eye, and 5 percent have both eyes removed to protect their life. Most children whose eyes are saved suffer severe, irreversible loss of vision.”

Cristie married Jeff in 2003 and when she became pregnant, she tells Samaritanmag that she had an amniocentesis, a prenatal test to check on the health of the fetus and discovered that he had the genetic mutation for retinoblastoma. Rachel, Healey’s daughter from his first marriage, did not have the disease. 

“Initially when Rachel was born they couldn’t pinpoint the mutation in Jeff’s blood. They knew he had retinoblastoma, but it’s a very difficult thing to find and there’s different types of mutations of it. So by the time Derek was born, they knew what the mutation was. So I had an amnio before Derek was born and we knew he was going to have retinoblastoma,” says Cristie.

“So he was checked the very first day he was born. We were there every week and every two weeks and every three weeks and then eventually when he was 4 months old, we had him put under anesthetic and they found the first tumor and then so began the treatment. We were lucky enough that we didn’t have to take radiation or chemotherapy route.

“They started with laser treatment — cryo freezing treatment — and if he took to that treatment, you don’t have to take the radiation or chemotherapy route, which is their first goal because they really don’t want to put a child’s immune system under any more stress than they have to so if that route works first, then that’s what they take.”

When Healey was alive, he held an annual fundraiser for Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund called It’s a Very Healey Christmas at his downtown Toronto blues club, Healey’s. Various artists that would volunteer their time to be part of it and all the proceeds would go to Daisy’s.

“It would be about making people aware of it,” says Cristie. “He was an advocate for making people aware of the fact that cancer can be reoccurring in other forms if you’re someone who was a childhood cancer survivor and you should have yourself checked your whole life because once you have cancer, you’re at risk for other ones.”

In the year that followed Healey’s death, she says, there was a great outpouring of support and donations for Daisy’s. The family had asked In lieu of flowers that donations to be made to the Fund. In May, 2008, a pair of tribute concerts were held benefitting Daisy’s as well.

With the monies raised, Cristie says,  “They were able to have a conference in Kenya to start educating people about retinoblastoma.

“Derek has a wonderful doctor, Dr. Brenda Gallie. She teaches people all over the world about retinoblastoma. We’re very lucky to live in Canada and to be able to have all these options at our fingertips for health care with regards to retinoblastoma because there are many countries in the world that don’t have don’t have the information, don’t have the knowledge, of how to treat that and there are so many people that die from this that don’t have to.

“So what she does is she tries to educate people around the world. I’ve met many of the doctors that she taught and then they went back to where they started to teach people in their own countries about retinalblasmoa and it’s made a huge difference.”

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.