Unless you need to make yearly optometrist appointments because you have corrective lenses, it’s not a routine doctor’s visit for many adults. In fact, according to a survey by Vision Express, half of adults in the United Kingdom make an eye doctor appointment ever five years — which is more than long enough for a major issue to arise.
That’s exactly what happened to Kelly Luff, a 35-year-old mother of four living in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. In fact, when she finally made it to the optometrist, she wasn’t even going for herself, but rather taking her kids for their checkups. Thankfully, she decided to squeeze in her own checkup that day since she was there already, and it had been almost seven years since she’d had an exam. She never expected the doctor to find what he did.
She told the Daily Mail, “I’ve always had a tiny visible freckle on the iris in my left eye, and although it didn’t look any different to me, when the optometrist looked at it with a magnifying glass and a light, he said there was something there – a tumour.” Just like how freckles on your skin can become cancerous, so too can ones on your eye, no matter how insignificant they may seem to you.
Her optometrist immediately referred her to the Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, where they confirmed she had a malignant melanoma on her iris. Luff and her family were shocked at the news, especially because she had had that freckle in her eye all her life. However, it’s important to note that a benign freckle can turn cancerous, even in the eye. It has to do with the fact that both our skin and eyes are made up of melanocytes, which are cells that affect pigment and coloring.
Melanoma in the eye is not necessarily associated with sitting out in the sun without proper protection, although it may be caused by exposure to UV light from the sun. People with fair skin and light-colored eyes are thought to be more at risk, because the lighter pigment can let more UV rays into the eye.
Although the risk of eye melanoma is higher if you have a freckle or mole on your eye, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to make an emergency eye doctor appointment. However, just like moles and freckles on your body, you should get it checked regularly by a specialist. While melanoma in the eye can cause flickering light, blurred vision or a shadow in your vision, a third of people affected won’t have symptoms. Luff was one of the third.
Like any cancer, the key to successful treatment is early diagnosis. Dr. Victoria Cohen, an oncologist and head of the eye cancer service at Moorfields, says success rate of tumor eradication in the eye is over 90 percent if caught before it metastasizes.
In Luff’s case, the tumor was small enough that she didn’t need it to be removed, but rather shrunk by targeted radiotherapy called plaque brachytherapy. What they do is put a small plate with radioactive powder on one side directly on the affected eye, much like a contact lens. The plate is sewn to your eye so it can’t move around, and delivers concentrated radiation to the tumor for around four days, during which time you need to be monitored in the hospital.
Thankfully, Luff’s tumor shrunk significantly to the point where she’s considered in remission, but it’s still present in her eye. According to Dr. Cohen, this is common, but it means the tumor must be monitored extensively for the first two years to make sure it doesn’t grow back. She also has some side effects from the treatment like narrowed vision, dryness and seeing brighter colors. These symptoms could get worse over time, or she might lose her vision completely in that eye. However, Luff believes it’s a small price to pay for being cancer free.
Now, she hopes to inspire others to make an appointment at the optometrist. She told the Daily Mail, “I think people tend to only go to the optician if there’s a problem. But I had no symptoms at all. Who knows how long the tumour had been sitting there?”