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Skin Cancer Also a Threat to the Eyes

Just about everyone loves the summer sun and the opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy it. But over-exposure and poor protection could have long lasting effects on our skin and our eyes.

Sixty-year-old John McPartland knows this all too well. Seven years ago, the outdoorsman found an odd-looking freckle on his eyelid.

“I just thought I should check it out and see if it is anything, and fortunately I did,” he said.

McPartland visited many doctors to find out what this freckle could mean. When he wasn't satisfied with their answers, he saw Dr. Paul Finger, an ophthalmologist and director of ocular oncology at The New York Eye & Ear Infirmary.

Finger determined that McPartland had conjunctival melanoma — a deadly form of eye cancer.

The condition is melanoma of the conjunctiva, which is the delicate tissue covering the insides of the eyelids. This is the same area that becomes inflamed by pink eye or conjunctivitis.

Tumors in the eyes are dangerous because they resist treatment more than melanomas arising on the skin, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Early identification and treatment of melanoma of the eye is critical," said Finger.

He suggests getting a full eye exam every one to two years because, like skin cancer, some ocular cancers have visual symptoms that a doctor can detect.

“Basil cells tend to be sort of roundish,” Finger said. “They have a dimple on the top. They can make your eyelashes fall out. Squamous cell carcinomas are flaky. They have a flaky crust often times. But melanomas tend to be pigmented. So they’ll see a pigmented spot. The brown spots are particularly dangerous.”

The primary treatment for conjunctival melanoma is surgical removal. In some cases, topical chemotherapy may be used.

McPartland underwent both surgery and chemotherapy.

“As far as I’m concerned, he (Finger) saved my life,” said McPartland. “I wear my sunglasses and I forget about it until I come here, pretty much, and he reminds me this is serious stuff and to take care of it.”

Preventing Skin Cancer of the Eye

Skin cancer is a very real threat to the eyes. About 2,400 people get it each year, and more than 200 die from it. The damage comes from the ultraviolet (UV) light of the sun. Sun damage starts early in life and can trigger a host of ophthalmic maladies: cataracts, macular degeneration, corneal burns, benign growths, solar retinopathy and eye cancer. In addition to melanoma, other skin cancers -- basil cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas -- can also affect the eyes.

Finger said this is why it’s important to wear sunglasses and hats to protect our eyes from the sun. He recommends wearing sunglasses that offer 100 percent UV protection.

“People should think of sunglasses as sun block to their eyes,” he said.

Purchasing glasses from an optical shop is a good bet because most have photometer machines, which can be used to measure UV transmission by sunglasses.

And though many children may not like wearing sunglasses or hats, Finger urges parents to protect their kids.

People with blue eyes, light complexions and those who work outdoors are most vulnerable.

"Certain drugs also increase UV toxicity," Finger said. "Patients who take chlorothiazides, sulfonamides, tetracycline, phenothiazins, psoralens, and allopurinol should be extra cautious about sunlight."

People with a history of skin melanoma are also at a higher risk for eye melanoma.

“My recommendation is that patients who have been diagnosed with skin melanoma that has spread should have an eye exam, and then every six months thereafter,” Finger said.