Yes, melanoma – known as the most serious type of skin cancer – can occur in your eyes! In fact, according to the Melanoma Research Foundation, ocular melanoma (also known as OM) is the second most common form of melanoma, with about 2,000 new cases diagnosed each year in the U.S. About half of OM cases are eventually fatal as the cancer spreads to other parts of the body.
And as with all melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancers, prevention starts with education. A terrific guideline: The greater your risk of developing skin cancer through exposure to UVA and UVB rays, the greater your risk of developing OM.
Why the Eye?
OM is similar to skin melanoma, but there are significant differences. Many people have heard of the natural pigment melanin, which gives our skin its particular color, and we might also know that melanoma develops from the cells which produce melanin. But these cells are not just in our skin. We carry them in our intestinal lining, and in our hair; they also give color to our eyes.
Who is at Risk?
Researchers at the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center say that people most at risk for OM generally:
- Have fair skin, and tend to sunburn easily.
- Have light-colored eyes.
- Are of European descent, especially northern Europe.
- Have occupations such as welding, where proper eye protection is vital.
Also, age is a factor: people 50 and above have a much greater risk of developing OM.
What Can You Do?
It’s important to realize that anyone can develop ocular melanoma. Our eyes are constantly exposed to the sun whenever we are outside, whether we are active on the tennis court or running errands in the car. We should pay attention to eye care right along with skin protection. Here are some tips:
- Invest in a good pair of sunglasses. Look for a pair that blocks 99-100 percent UVB and UVA rays. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN offers tips on selecting sunglasses.
- Wear a hat with at least a 3-inch brim (minimum recommendation of the American Academy of Dermatology).
- Start your children early on the path of UV protection. Get them into the habit of wearing sunglasses and hats.
Take it from melanoma survivor Timna: “EVERYONE needs to do everything they CAN do to protect their eyes”.