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Spunky 9-year-old is retinoblastoma survivor

At 9, Julie-Layton Bryan is a more than four-year survivor of cancer.

Diagnosed with retinoblastoma in her left eye in November of 2008, the Straughn fourth-grader underwent intraarterial chemo in New York and had clean scans for months.

But earlier this year, her mom, Stephanie Bryan, knew something was wrong.

“Always trust your instincts,” is part of the advice she’d give a parent dealing with a child’s cancer. She did. 0425-julie-layton-2

In December, Julie-Layton got a great report at a check-up. In January, she began having headaches and complaining of blurred vision in her “good” eye.

At first, doctors thought her symptoms were consistent with migraines, but the pressure readings in her left eye weren’t good, and Stephanie Bryan trusted her instincts. Soon, Julie-Layton was back in New York to meet with her specialists.

On Thurs., Jan. 31, the family learned that there was a good chance the cancer had returned. Enucleation of Julie-Layton’s left eye was scheduled for Mon., Feb. 4. Stephanie said leaving her little girl in the operating room was the hardest thing she’s ever done.

“I couldn’t say to her, ‘You’ll be just the same when it’s over,’ because physically, I knew she’d be different,” Stephanie said.

Anyone who knows Julie-Layton shouldn’t be surprised that she asked her mom if she could keep her eye in a glass jar.

“My mom told me I couldn’t, because they had to take it to the lab,” she said.

The pathology report showed two new tumors, but no spreading outside of the eye. A couple of days later, the Bryans were home in Alabama, and in March, Julie-Layton got a prosthetic eye.

In the interim, she rocked hot-pink eye patches that matched her outfits, and custom-designed ones that she colored. Each of her classmates designed a patch for her as she recovered. But because of fear of infection, she couldn’t wear them. Instead, she used them as prayer patches and, in turn, prayed for each of the classmates who had prayed for and supported her.

Meanwhile, within two weeks of her surgery, she entered a pageant, one of her favorite things.

“My friend Ella Kate (Nichols) and I always are on the stage together and one of us always wins and one gets photogenic,” Julie-Layton said. “When I told her I was going to be in the pageant, she almost hugged me to death.”

True to form, Ella Kate won her division and Julie-Layton won photogenic.

Now, armed with her prosthetic eye, she’s practicing using her eye muscles to make her prosthesis move with her eye. Well, sometimes. She also uses the advantage of her prosthesis to win staring contests with friends, and she’s got big plans to pop it out and hide it in a friend’s lunch tray.

It’s that sunny personality that’s helped her deal with the cancer, her mom said.

Julie-Layton enjoys baton lessons and tumbling lessons, and said there’s basically only two things she can’t do.

“I can never ever, ever be a pilot of an airplane,” she said. “And I can’t drive an 18-wheeler.”

But only because she couldn’t pass the eye exams.

This Friday, the Bryans will participate in Relay for Life, just as they’ve participated in similar events since Julie-Layton was diagnosed in 2008. Stephanie heads Straughn High School’s team, and said it’s important for the family to give back.

“Our community – from Paxton to Straughn – has been so good to us,” she said. “We’ve been able to live a normal life. Our insurance is good, but we’ve had to travel a lot. There have been fundraisers and gifts that have really helped us out.”

Relay for Life also helps fund cancer research, and Julie-Layton participated in experimental treatments.

Asked what advice they’d give others facing cancer, Julie-Layton said she’d tell a patient “not to be afraid because God’s going to take care of everything.”

It’s a lesson, she said, she learned from her mommy.

Stephanie said she’d counsel a parent or a patient to take one day at a time.

“First of all, rely on God,” she said. “Secondly, rely on your instincts. You are your child’s best advocate.”

It is important for parents to do their own research, and to know their doctors, she said.

“Julie’s handled it better than Brad and I have,” Stephanie said. “It’s hard because you have no control. You can control what time they go to bed. You can make them do their homework, all the other factors. As a parent, that’s the hardest part.”