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Proton therapy treating ocular cancer

When treated early, proton therapy can cure almost 95% of ocular cancers.

BOSTON — When you hear “melanoma,” you probably think of skin cancer, since melanoma is a type of cancer that develops in the cells that produce melanin – the pigment that gives skin its color. 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 the 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 — cancer of the eye.

“Ocular melanoma, historically, was treated by enucleation, meaning the removal of the eye,” said Mass. General Cancer Center radiation oncologist,  Helen Shih, MD, who has expertise in proton therapy.

But for some patients, that may no longer be the case.

Traditional radiation delivers X-rays to the tumor but the radiation can go beyond the tumor and damage healthy tissue. Proton therapy delivered radiation delivers a beam of protons that stops at the tumor.

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“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% of 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 emphasized.

While proton therapy has been used for years for the treatment of other cancers, like brain cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer, Dr. Shih says there are only a handful of hospitals and academic institutions across the U.S. using proton therapy for ocular melanoma.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Ann Sterling at ann.sterling@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.

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