Melanoma is a highly aggressive form of cancer. It affects the cells in a person’s body that are responsible for producing a substance known as melanin. Melanin is primarily known to be in the cells of the skin because it produces pigment. However, a person’s eyes also contain melanin-producing cells. This means that the cells in the eye can develop melanoma as well.
Eye melanoma, also known as ocular melanoma, is a rare form of cancer. It can develop independently in the eye or can spread from the skin cells to the eye. The majority of the time when a person develops eye melanoma, it develops in the tissues of the eye that a person cannot see from the outside. Because of this, ocular melanoma may go un-diagnosed for longer than would be preferable.
Eye melanoma can develop in three different parts of the eye. It can grow in the iris which is the pigmented part of your eye, the ciliary body, or the choroid. Ocular melanoma is not a condition with a set or well-known cause. It may be relate to genetic abnormalities in the eye cells. It may also occur from excessive exposure to radiation, or UV light. Sometimes, eye melanoma also occurs as the result of another cancer like skin melanomas or even liver cancer.
One of the most noticeable symptoms of eye melanoma is a change to the color in the iris. This can involve a dark spot on the iris that seems to grow as the melanoma progresses. Vision disturbances like blurring, double vision, or problems with peripheral vision are also common symptoms. Sometimes, they eye may bulge, develop redness, or pain in the eyes.
It is not entirely clear what causes melanoma of the eye, or ocular melanoma. Ocular melanoma occurs when eye cells that are ordinarily healthy develop errors in their genetic makeup or go missing altogether. While scientists don’t know the exact cause of this disease, certain gene mutations are common in people with ocular melanoma, suggesting at least some level a genetic component.
While the exact cause is not known, there are certainly some risk factors. Exposure to natural or artificial sunlight (such as tanning beds) over long periods of time likely plays a large chance, and those of older age are at greater risk for developing ocular melanoma. Having lighter colored eyes and being of Caucasian descent are also linked to one’s likelihood of obtaining the disease. Certain inherited skin conditions, moles, and abnormal skin pigmentation involving the eyelids are also associated with one’s chance of developing ocular melanoma.
There are numerous treatment options for ocular melanoma. Sometimes, radiation therapy is enough to stop tumor growth and eradicate cancer in the eye. Cryotherapy and laser therapy could also be options to treat this type of cancer in some cases.
However, if there is a danger of the cancer spreading to other organs or the melanoma is particularly aggressive and fast-spreading, the eye may need to be removed entirely through surgery. If an eye is surgically removed to treat eye melanoma, an artificial eye is put in its place that can be custom-designed to match the color and appearance of a person’s remaining eye.
While ocular melanoma does seem to have a genetic component, making it harder for certain people to avoid, it is fortunately very rare and there are many ways of decreasing one’s risk. It is important to use proper eye protection when exposed to the sun and to avoid places like tanning beds, where artificial sunlight is extremely concentrated.
Because older people are at greater risk, prevention in youth is key. Another key factor in preventing ocular melanoma is exercise. While there have been no major studies, people who develop ocular melanoma are generally less physically active and eat more poorly, indicating that exercise, good diet, and maintaining a healthy weight are excellent preventative steps to take. Avoiding stress also factors into overall health, and may contribute to a lower risk of ocular melanoma.
Finally, the most important thing someone can do is regularly see an ophthalmologist. Because ocular melanoma is difficult to detect from the outside, a regular appointment with a trained doctor can catch a melanoma in an early stage, making it easier to treat.