You’ve probably heard of melanoma. It’s a cancer that affects the body’s pigment-producing cells, or melanocytes. Melanoma is seen most often in the skin, and it can prove fatal unless it’s caught early enough. However, melanoma does not just occur on the skin—it can also appear on the uvea, which is the pigmented layer of the eye.
Approximately 2,500 adults are diagnosed with ocular melanoma each year in the United States. Since the cancer can easily metastasize and affect tissues elsewhere in the body, it is very dangerous and tough to treat in its later stages. Though people with light-colored eyes and older adults are at a higher risk for the disease, it appears in individuals of every race and at every age. For this reason, it’s very important that you take steps to protect yourself.
Protecting yourself from ocular melanoma requires a three-pronged approach. First, you can modify your lifestyle to reduce your risk of ever developing the disease. Second, you must make sure that if you do develop the disease, it is detected as early as possible. Third, you need to be aware of the symptoms of the disease so you can act quickly if you suspect you may have ocular melanoma.
Reduce Your Risk
Many of the risk factors for ocular melanoma, like age and light-colored eyes, are non-modifiable. However, there are a few modifiable risk factors you can address to protect yourself.
Studies have not confirmed that UV exposure increases the risk of ocular melanoma, but many eye doctors and scientists believe this to be the case. To keep UV rays from reaching your eyes, wear good-quality sunglasses when you spend time outside. Look for models that block 100% of UV rays; the best place to buy them is from your eye doctor’s office since you can be confident you’re purchasing a reputable brand. Make sure your sunglasses are wide enough to block rays that come in from the sides.
The inverse relationship between physical activity and incidence of most every major cancer is well established. You don’t have to run marathons or bike across the country, but getting plenty of exercise on a regular basis will go a long way towards helping your body fend off serious conditions like ocular melanoma.
If you’re currently inactive, it’s not too late to change that. Start walking for just 10 minutes a day, and once you’re comfortable, start adding additional walking time to your routine until you’re walking for 30 minutes five days a week. This is a simple way to meet the CDC’s recommendation of two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.
While there’s no miracle diet that will protect against ocular melanoma and other cancers, eating well can help reduce your risk. In general, try to limit your intake of processed foods, sugar, and alcohol, and reach for more whole, natural foods like vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.
Ensure Prompt Detection
Usually, patients with ocular melanoma don’t experience any symptoms until the tumor grows large enough to interfere with their vision. For this reason, it’s important to see your eye doctor for annual checkups. Visiting regularly increases your doctor’s chances of catching the tumor early enough that it can be treated.
As a part of your regular eye exam, your eye doctor looks into the back of your eye using a microscope. If he or she spots a tumor, he or she may order additional tests like an ultrasound or biopsy to determine whether it is a melanoma.
Be Aware of Symptoms
While regular eye exams ensure that most cases of ocular melanoma are caught early on, there are rare cases in which the tumor grows very quickly. In these cases, it may lead to symptoms before it’s detected by your eye doctor. It’s important to know what these symptoms are so you can seek care if you experience them:
- Fuzzy or blurry vision
- A shrinking visual field
- Bulging of the eye
- A feeling that you can’t move your eye normally
- Appearance of floaters or flashes of light in your visual field
- A dark spot on your iris
Many of these symptoms can also be caused by an array of other eye diseases, most of which are less serious than ocular melanoma. If you experience these symptoms, you don’t have to panic or assume you have cancer, but it’s still wise to make an appointment with your eye doctor just in case.
Treatment for ocular melanoma usually involves excising the tumor, often with a laser-based procedure, and then administering radiation therapy. If the cancer is caught early, your vision may be preserved and you may not experience tumors elsewhere in your body.
Wear your sunglasses, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of exercise, and make your annual appointment with your eye doctor. Ocular melanoma is a serious ailment, but with these measures, you can put up a fight against this often-deadly form of cancer.