When people generally think of melanoma, they usually think of skin cancer. And while it is rare, melanoma can develop in the eyes. It is called ocular melanoma and, according to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation, up to 2,500 Americans are diagnosed with this form of cancer each year.
“Melanomas are a type of cancer that develop in the cells that produce pigment. Pigment is the substance that gives your skin, hair and eyes color,” explains the American Academy of Ophalmology’s website. Melonaomas tend to develop in the uveal part of the eye, which is one of the three layers of the eye, the other two being the sclera (outer layer) and retina (innermost layer).
The problem with ocular melanoma is that it typically doesn’t have symptoms and is usually only detected during a routine, comprehensive eye dilation exam.
Who is at Risk?
Research suggests that there is a strong genetic component for people who develop eye cancer and that it tends to affect those with lighter skin tones who have blue or green eyes and of that group, it tends to affect people ages 50 and above. Another major factor, not surprisingly, is overexposure sunlight or ultraviolet light from tanning beds. The simple act of wearing sunglasses can go a long way toward reducing the risk of developing ocular melanoma.
How is it Detected?
As mentioned above, a routine eye exam where eyes are dilated is the best detection method, given that the cancer is relatively symptom-free. That said, if you notice dark spots on your iris (colored part of your eye), a change in the shape of your pupil, blurred vision, or a loss of vision, you should see your eye care professional. These issues can also be present for other eye problems, so further assessment will be needed.
If eye cancer is suspected during the routine eye exam, the next step may be to see a specialist for an ultrasound of the eye, a fluorescine angiography (where dye is injected into your body and a special camera takes pictures of the contrast image), or a biopsy (where eye tissue is removed and examined).
How is it Treated?
Depending on the severity of the ocular melanoma, radiation and/or surgery are the traditional treatments. In the last few years, medical oncologists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center have been testing experimental drug therapies and are having promising results.