We have all heard of melanoma skin cancer, but many people do not realize that melanoma can also occur in the eye.
When this type of cancer occurs it is called intraocular melanoma. According to the National Cancer Institute melanoma is the most common type of eye cancer in adults. What is intraocular melanoma and what can be done to reduce your risk?
What is Intraocular Melanoma?
Your body produces a special pigment known as melanin. This pigment gives your skin its color. Your eyes also produce this pigment. Melanoma is a type of cancer that starts in these melanin producing cells. The naked eye can’t typically see this type of cancer and in most cases there few early symptoms of this disease which can make intraocular melanoma difficult to discover.
Understanding a little more about the anatomy of the eye will help you to better understand this disease and how it begins. Your eye is comprised of several distinct layers. The outer layer of the eye is comprised of the white of your eye as well as the clear covering that is known as the cornea. The inner most layer contains the retina and senses light and helps to transmit the things that you see to the brain through the optic nerve. The middle layer contains your iris, which is the colored part of your eye, the ciliary body which helps your pupil to change size as it adjusts to light and the choroid which is comprised of the blood vessels that bring blood to the eye. Intraocular melanoma typically occurs in this middle layer, most commonly in the choroid. Melanoma can also occur in other parts of the eye including the eyelid and iris.
What Increases the Risk for Intraocular Melanoma?
Just as with many other types of cancer there are various risk factors for getting melanoma of the eye. People with blue or green eyes tend to get this type of cancer more commonly than those with darker eyes. As your age increases your risk for this type of cancer does as well. Those with fair skin are much more likely to get melanoma than those with darker skin. In addition exposure to sunlight, including artificial sunlight from tanning beds, can also increase your risk. Remember that these are only risk factors. Having one or more of these does not mean that you will get intraocular melanoma. Some people get this disease with no risk factors at all.
What Are the Symptoms of Intraocular Melanoma?
Intraocular melanoma is difficult to discover and diagnose since early symptoms are uncommon. Many times the melanoma is discovered during a routine eye exam while the pupil is dilated. You should also go to the eye doctor if you experience a change in your eye color, vision changes, blurry vision or bulging eyes since these can be symptoms of melanoma of the eye. While intraocular melanoma is the most common type of eye cancer in adults, you should know that this is a very rare type of cancer.
Melanoma of the Eye Can Spread
Since it is difficult to discover melanoma of the eye in its early stages, there is a large risk of this cancer spreading to other parts of the body. When this occurs it is said that the cancer has metastasized, or spread, to another part of the body. Commonly this type of cancer will first spread to the liver. Cancer from other parts of the body can also spread to the eye. Regular eye examinations are important and it is essential to see your doctor immediately if there are any changes in your eyes or vision. It is also important to protect your eyes when in the sun and to minimize your sun exposure when possible since this can significantly lessen your risk for getting this disease. The sun is at its strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. so it is important to be very careful during these times.
What Are the Treatment Options for Melanoma of the Eye?
If intraocular melanoma is expected your doctor will first conduct a few tests to confirm the diagnosis. The tests used will vary from situation to situation but can include an eye exam that includes pupil dilation, an examination of the inside of the eye known as opthalmoscopy, an ultrasound of the eye and other tests. This testing will help your doctor to understand more about the tumor and determine proper treatment.
Treatment options will vary quite a bit from patient to patient depending on the type of melanoma cells that you have, the size of the tumor, where the tumor is located and if the tumor has metastasized or spread. Your age and health will also impact your treatment options. Small tumors can often be treated with lasers or radiation and may not interfere with normal vision at all. Larger tumors often require more aggressive treatment including removal of the eye. In cases where the cancer has not spread patients can generally receive treatment and often live for several years after diagnosis.
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