Medical Moment: Proton therapy used to treat ocular melanoma

Published: Jan. 24, 2023 at 5:56 PM EST
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(WNDU) - When you hear the term “melanoma,” you probably think of skin cancer, but it can occur in one of the last places you’d expect!

But our eyes also have these melanin-producing cells and can develop melanoma. Now, some of the top centers in the U.S. are using the power of protons to kill cancer and save the eye.

It might not be visible to the untrained eye, but your ophthalmologist might uncover a spot or freckle that could be a sign of ocular melanoma or cancer of the eye.

“So, ocular melanoma, historically, was treated by a nucleation, meaning the removal of the eye,” said Helen Shih, MD, a radiation oncologist at Mass General Cancer Center.

But for some patients, that may no longer be the case. Dr. Helen Shih is a radiation oncologist with expertise in proton therapy. Traditional radiation delivers x-rays to the tumor, but the radiation can go beyond the tumor and damage healthy tissue. Proton therapy delivers radiation through a large machine that produces a beam of protons that stops at the tumor.

“We typically go through the white of the eye, which is fairly resistant to the radiation,” Dr. Shih explained. “It treats the tumor and the beam stops there. So, there’s no radiation or virtually no radiation delivered to the brain.”

Dr. Shih says it’s important to catch ocular cancer early, before it spreads. When treated early, proton therapy can cure almost 95 percent of the ocular cancers.

“I would say the overwhelming majority of people that we treat, granted they are selected carefully, they do not only save their eye, but frequently we save their vision,” Dr. Shih said.

Treatment that could be life and sight-saving.

While proton therapy has been used for years for the treatment of other cancers, there are only a handful of hospitals currently performing it for eye cancer.