PHILADELPHIA, Pa. - What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word melanoma? It's probably skin cancer, but did you know you can also get melanoma in your eye?
Doctors say that 95% of melanoma cases are of the skin, but most of those other 5% are of the eye, or ocular melanoma.
"I was watching TV and for some reason I put my hand over my left eye and my brain switched over to the right eye and everything was distorted immensely," said Dayton Cooper Junior. The 66 year-old is from Pittman, New Jersey. He went to see his eye doctor right away, then went to Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.
Doctors knew something was wrong during a number of tests and exams. Then, "[The doctor] turns & has a sad face to me and says you have a melanoma in your right eye," explained Cooper.
It was a diagnosis he didn't expect. "I was very shocked and surprised."
Ocular melanoma is rare. Fewer than three-thousand people a year in the U.S. are diagnosed with it.
"Melanocytes we think of in the skin and these are the promoters or origin of melanoma of the skin, but believe it or not, you have melanocytes in your eye," said Dr. Carol Shields, Co-Director of Ocular Oncology at Wills Eye Hospital.
She says the people most at risk are fair-skinned, light-eyed, Caucasians. Two different colored eyes is also a big risk factor.
Once diagnosed, which only an eye doctor can do, Dr. Shields says, "The number one goal is to save a life. Number 2 goal, if we can, is to save the eye. Number 3 goal is to save the vision."
Typically, doctors try radiation first. For example with Cooper. "They put me under and put a radioactive plaque behind the tumor behind the eye," said Cooper.
The other option is to remove the eye. The main danger is if the cancer spreads. "Maybe 20-25% of the patients already have the systemic spread," explained Dr. Shields.
Cooper was lucky, although he was at high risk, which he found out through genetic testing, the cancer didn't spread.
"We gave him the radiation [in his eye]. His tumor has beautifully responded," said Dr. Shields
Cooper did undergo some chemotherapy, but that was only because of his high risk for cancer. It was a prophylactic, or preventative, treatment.
He says his vision isn't the same, but after laser surgery and injections, he can still drive and go about daily life!
Dr. Shields says there are often no symptoms of ocular melanoma.. so it's important to go to your eye doctor and get an eye exam.. with dilation.. at least once a year.
While doctors aren't sure exactly what causes ocular melanoma, they still suggest to wear UV protection sunglasses, while they gather more data.
This story is part of our More Than Skin Deep Series. As part of that, we'll be at Musikfest handing out sunscreen all week.
Allentown, PA 18102