Being fair-skinned, I always knew I had to be extra careful about how much time I spent in the sun. But it wasn’t until recently that I learned my skin wasn’t the only thing at risk for developing melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer — which affects more than 50,000 people in the US every year. Squinting in the sun was putting my eyes at risk, too. “Even at the size of a pinhead, melanoma of the eye can kill you,” says Carol L. Shields, MD, co-director of the Ocular Oncology Service of Wills Eye in Philadelphia. When caught early, those with eye melanoma have a greater than 90-percent chance of recovery, but, if left unchecked, the disease can result in blindness, loss of an eye or even death. “It can spread to other parts of your body,” says Shields. “Once it’s in your liver, survival is usually less than one year.”
Who’s at risk. Everyone, but especially individuals with lighter colored eyes, like blue or hazel, or those who have visible freckles on their iris. People who spend hours each day outdoors, like beach-goers, golfers, fisherman and those who work outside, are also at a greater risk of developing eye melanoma.
What to watch for. “Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of early warning signs for melanoma of the eye,” says Stuart R. Lessin, MD, director of dermatology at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “The first sign is changes in vision and, by then, damage is already done.” So if you notice flashes of light, floating objects, or any other distortions or changes in vision, head to the doc, asap. Visible pigmented lesions, aka moles, on the iris are also signs of trouble.
Protect those peepers. Sure, it’s easy to miss that yearly visit to your eye doc — especially when you know you’ll be unable to read anything after they dilate your pupils to the size of a grapefruit. But up to 50 percent of patients with the disease show no symptoms, and half of all eye melanomas are found during routine eye examinations. So get checked.
Sport some shades. Those $5 Chanels you bought in Chinatown may be in this season, but they won’t protect your eyes. According to a 2007 study done by the American Optometric Association, an alarming 40 percent of Americans don’t think that UV protection is an important factor when deciding on which sunglasses to buy. To help ward off ocular cancer, you need to invest in a quality pair of specs that will filter out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation, and screen out 75 to 90 percent of visible light. (So those totally-black, nobody-can-see-your-eyes shades are even cooler than you thought!) If you’re unsure that your shades are doing the trick, a qualified optician should be able to test your specs to make sure they’re up to snuff. And, if you’re in the market for a new pair, make sure to pick glasses with high UV protection (we love this stylish, yet safeguarding pair from Marc Jacobs) that has ultra-dark lenses. Remember: the darker, the better.