NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine — Jerusha Chicoine’s son was just four months old when she noticed a tiny white dot on his pupil.
No one else could see it — not her husband, her mother, or even little Foster Chicoine’s pediatrician.
“I thought I was losing my mind,” Chicoine said.
But after Foster’s pupil changed shape weeks later, it became clear something was wrong. Last March, he was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called intraocular medulloepithelioma.
Within a span of two weeks, a local pediatric eye specialist identified a tumor, Foster was evaluated at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, and his left eye was surgically removed.
Throughout the whirlwind, Chicoine and her husband also were caring for Foster’s identical twin brother Weston and two-year-old brother Broderick at their home in New Gloucester.
“Three boys under three was a challenge in and of itself, then we got hit with pretty major, life-changing surgery and uncertainty,” she said. “That was a lot to handle for a period of time.”
Foster’s twin has shown no signs of illness.
“It’s strange that they’re so obviously similar in their genes, but one got it and one didn’t,” Chicoine said.
At first, the family felt alone in facing Foster’s health crisis, which included a fitting for a prosthetic eye.
“It’s super isolating,” Chicoine said. “I don’t know any other kids his age with a prosthetic eye, I only know one other person at all who has one.”
But then Chicoine discovered Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families in Casco, less than an hour away from the Chicoine’s home. The family has attended the camp twice, meeting others who understood the struggles of childhood cancer, including the often head-spinning pace of diagnosis and treatment, Chicoine said.
“You connect with these other families, where you’re like, ‘OK, these people get it,’” she said. “I can talk to them about these things and I don’t feel alone in this.”
As with all other families who attend the camp, the Chicoines stayed at no cost. The weeklong sessions are fully funded through donations and sponsorships.
Now, Chicoine wants to give back. She’s participating in a Polar Dip on Feb. 15 at Portland’s East End Beach to benefit Camp Sunshine, with hopes of raising $2,000, the typical cost for a family to attend camp for a week. Her team, dubbed “Foster’s Fighters,” had raised nearly $1,700 by Monday morning.
Camp Sunshine aims to raise at least $20,000 from the polar dip, enough to send 10 families to camp for a week, said Michael Smith, director of special events. More than 100 people have signed up to take the plunge, including one 80-year-old participant, he said.
Now almost 17 months old, Foster’s a healthy little boy. He first crawled a couple of days after his surgery, and started to walk at about the same time as his twin brother, compensating well for the loss of his eye, Chicoine said. So far, he has been spared from chemotherapy and radiation, as his doctors don’t believe the cancer spread beyond his eye. But they’re keeping close tabs, with regular checkups and MRIs every three months to spot any potential recurrence of the cancer.
“They told us the only thing he can’t do is fly a plane,” Chicoine said. “Other than that, he doesn’t really have any limitations for his life.”
She’s thankful for his health, and for the support of other families who understand the family’s ordeal. On Saturday, Chicoine will be “freezin’ for a reason,” as the polar dip’s tagline says, to benefit Camp Sunshine.
“They touch a lot of lives, and it’s really a very amazing place to be,” she said.