We often think of melanoma as a cancer of the skin, but ocular melanoma, a lesser known form of melanoma, can develop in the eye. There are only a small number of physicians in the US who specialize in ophthalmic oncology. One of those specialists is Dr. David Abramson, Chief of Ophthalmic Oncology Service, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) and Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill-Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Abramson will be honored with the CURE OM Vision of Hope Award at the Melanoma Research Foundation’s 17th Annual Wings of Hope for Melanoma gala in New York City this October.
Founded in 2011, CURE OM (the Community United for Research and Education of Ocular Melanoma) is the MRF’s initiative to increase awareness, education, treatment and research funding for ocular melanoma, while improving the lives of people affected by this disease.
As Chief of Ophthalmic Oncology Service, Dr. Abramson utilizes the Center’s close associations with specialists in pediatrics, radiation oncology, and medicine, to offer coordinated, state-of-the-art care with access to novel therapies and clinical trials not available anywhere else in the country. We had the honor of speaking with Dr. Abramson about his specialized path:
COOLIBAR: How did you find your way into the specialization of ophthalmic oncology?
ABRAMSON: I was fortunate to train in Ophthalmology at Columbia Presbyterian in New York which-at the time-had the world leaders in ophthalmic oncology (Algernon Reese MD and Robert Ellsworth, MD). I love the field of Ophthalmology but wanted to do something that made use of my scientific background, surgical training (I have performed more than 7,500 surgeries), research skills (I have published more than 700 papers), desire to help women and men, adults and children. I did a fellowship in ophthalmic oncology and did additional specialized training in pathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and Radiation Oncology. I am the only physician at MSK tenured in Surgery, Pediatrics and Radiation Oncology.
C: Have you seen a significant increase in the number of melanoma in the eye diagnosis year after year?
A: No but these cases are handled by only a small number of physicians in the US so we are quite busy seeing patients at MSK.
C: How does the MRF help you do the work you do?
A: Research doesn’t just happen any more than a car drives without gas. Money and awareness are the fuel for research and without that our car doesn’t go. MRF does both.
C: What inspires you to continue to pursue your work each day.
A: I am inspired by my failures, not my success. I try to understand why we failed, what we can do to be more successful and commit myself to those patients who have lost their battle with cancer. I will stop when I cure 100% of patients with no side effects.
C: Is there anything else you would like to share about the work you do?
A: I am the quarterback of a team and while it helps for me to call good plays our success is a result of that team. My nurses, researchers, colleagues, technicians and even the people who maintain our instruments are critical to success. Without the commitment of a special place like MSK and the support of organizations like the MRF, I would be throwing passes to an empty field.
Ocular Melanoma is the most common eye cancer in adults and the second most common location for melanoma. Approximately 2,000 Americans are diagnosed with ocular melanoma each year, and about half of these cases spread to other parts of the body, most commonly to the liver. When this occurs, it is most often fatal. There are treatments to help alleviate symptoms and extend life, but there is no known cure for ocular melanoma.
Ocular melanomas develop between ages 55 and 65 most often and usually are detected on an ophthalmic examination without symptoms. They are a disease of people whose families emigrated from Europe and rare in Asia and Africa. The more north in Europe your family is from the higher the incidence of ocular melanoma. Unlike cutaneous melanomas, sunlight plays no role in their development. Ocular melanoma should be treated by an ophthalmologist who specializes in treating eye cancers as most Ophthalmologists have limited experience in managing these tumors. Dr. Abramson combined his love of Ophthalmology with his scientific background, surgical training, research skills and desire to help people of all ages to become one of the few specialists qualified to treat ocular melanoma. He has trained with pioneers and world leaders in ophthalmic oncology, including Algernon Reese, MD and Robert Ellsworth, MD.
The CURE OM Vision of Hope Award will be formally presented to Dr. Abramson at the Wings of Hope Gala in New York this October. If you would like to attend the Wings of Hope Gala or learn more ways to support the Melanoma Research Foundation, visit: www.melanoma.org/get-involved/signature-events/wings-of-hope-galas.