McHenry boy's rare cancer stops mom's campaign, sparks community support

McHENRY – McHenry residents will see Erin Harris’ name on the April 7 ballot, but she doesn’t want a single vote.

Harris, who was running for the McHenry High School District 156 Board, decided in early February to withdraw, but it was too late to officially remove her name. Having been an original organizer of the inaugural St. Baldrick’s event at McHenry High School, Harris was looking to continue to give back to the community by serving on the board, but that idea ended when her 4-year-old son was diagnosed with one of the rarest forms of cancer.

The word retinoblastoma was foreign to Harris until earlier this month. She had sporadically noticed an auburn glow in her son Andrew’s right eye from time and time and only his left eye would appear red in photographs. Harris wasn’t sure what to make of it until one night while helping her son with a bath she saw that the glow was constant.

“I covered his right eye and asked him how many fingers I was holding up and he said two and five, and he was fine,” she said. “I covered his left eye, and he immediately told me he couldn’t see and the room was dark.”

A trip to the pediatric ophthalmologist brought up the possibility of retinoblastoma – eye cancer that can quickly spread – but it was seen as a long shot by doctors because only 200 people a year are diagnosed with the disease and almost all cases are discovered by the time a child turns 18 months old.

When results from the ultrasound came back, doctors confirmed it was eye cancer, and it was advanced, with a tumor covering about 75 percent of Andrew’s eye and having ruptured. While Andrew would never regain his vision, his parents had to decide whether to attempt chemotherapy to save the eye or have it surgically removed.

Attempting chemotherapy could have side effects and increase the potential of the cancer spreading through the optic nerve and into the brain or down the spine. Erin and her husband chose to have their son’s eye removed, which occurred Tuesday.

“That’s not a decision that was made lightly,” said Andrew’s father, Jim Harris, a McHenry police officer. “We weighed all the benefits to doing both, and the best one was to remove it.”

Andrew was one of the oldest patients with retinoblastoma doctors at Lurie’s Children Hospital had ever seen, and they knew the procedure could potentially be a much more painful recovery process and traumatic compared to the usual infant experience.

Luckily, Andrew and his family found a source of inspiration the day before the surgery as they spent a day in Chicago to take in all of Andrew’s favorite sights.

“He didn’t want to leave for the hospital in the morning,” Erin Harris said. “But we bought these pterodactyl wings at the Field Museum the day before and once he put those on he was ready to go. He was really quite brave once he put on the wings.”

After a rough first day, Andrew’s recovery has been smooth as he is back to playing with his siblings and running around. Erin Harris said there are still follow-up appointments and a 50 percent chance Andrew could still need chemotherapy to prevent any spread of cancer, but the family remains optimistic in part because of the tremendous community support they have received.

After playing a key part in launching St. Baldrick’s when she was a teacher at District 156, Harris could now benefit from the same event, as Andrew has been nominated as one of the local recipients.

“We’ve had overwhelming support,” Erin Harris said. “I know there are students shaving their heads in honor of Andrew, and my father, who is a teacher at East, will be shaving his head, too.”

A list of St. Baldrick's events can be found at the District 156 website. Erin Harris, who hopes to revisit her pursuit of a school board seat in the future, said she hopes the community will get involved in St. Baldrick's and the election.

"I still hope voters go out and choose a great candidate," she said. "Just not me."

There are dozens of local St. Baldrick's Day events scheduled throughout McHenry County in the next several weeks, which can be found on the St. Baldrick's Foundation website.

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