Malignant Melanoma in the Eye

Malignant  Ocular Melanoma is the most common form of eye cancer and affects about one in every 130,000 people. It is most common in light eyed males between 45 and 55 years old. Unlike skin malignant melanoma, there has been no study to correlate ultraviolent light from sun exposure and ocular melanoma.

Ocular melanoma arises from an existing freckle or nevus on the retina which lines the inside of the eye and is responsible for capturing the image and sending it to the brain.  A nevus on the retina is a fairly common occurrence and most nevi will stay benign just as most nevi on your skin. However, in rare cases, the nevus can start to grow and turn into a malignant melanoma.

Any nevus found on the retina should be photo documented and inspected at least annually with a dilated eye examination. Dilation of pupils allows the eye doctor to easily view the nevus through the larger pupil.

Early diagnosis of ocular melanoma is very important as it can be a deadly form of cancer if it is able to spread outside of the eye. Unlike skin malignant melanoma’s which patients can often see growing their skin, a melanoma in the eye will not be noticed by the patient.  Only your eye doctor will be able to see it. This makes ocular melanoma extremely dangerous as the diagnosis is often not made until after the tumor has had time to grow to a significant size and metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body.

Treatment for this type of eye cancer usually involves application of a radioactive plaque on the outside of the eye directly over top of the location of the melanoma. Patients will have to stay in the hospital during this procedure for several days. The radiation treatment is usually quite effective in destroying the melanoma but also destroys the retina resulting in severely decreased if not total loss of vision.

Unfortunately, mortality rates for ocular melanoma are quite high. 50% of patients will have a metastases (usually spreads to the liver) within 10 years and since the melanoma is such an aggressive cancer, very few patients will survive this metastases. Similar to any other cancer, early diagnosis and treatment before the cancer spreads is the key to surviving malignant melanoma.

Please be sure to have your eyes checked on an annual basis. Malignant melanoma and many other eye diseases which often have no symptoms can be diagnosed during your routine eye examination.