There was a period of about two years that my husband and I were focused almost solely on starting our family. Twenty-two months after our son was born, I was pregnant with our second child. Two pregnancies in less than two years meant a lot of doctor appointments—prenatal checkups, followed by sick and well-visit appointments for my newborn, followed by another round of prenatal appointments.

At times, it felt like I was either at a doctor’s appointment or scheduling the next one. Thankfully, both pregnancies were successful, and both of our babies were healthy.

A few months after bringing home our second child, a sweet, happy little girl, I felt like it was time to tie up a few loose ends regarding my own health. Though I’ve had glasses most of my life, I barely wore them during my two pregnancies. It was a matter of convenience, mostly.

But with two young children in the house, and running two businesses from my home, I felt myself reaching for my glasses more and more. It had been a decade since my last eye exam, so I decided it was time to make an appointment with my optometrist to update my prescription.

That appointment would end up saving my life.

During a routine eye exam, my optometrist noticed a small freckle in my left eye and, not wanting to take any chances, referred me immediately to the Stein Eye Institute at UCLA. It was there that I met Dr. Tara McCannel, a retinal surgeon.

I had a feeling from the outset that this was not just a freckle. It can take up to six weeks to get an appointment with a specialist. I was scheduled within 10 days. During my appointment, I was seen by four technicians and three doctors. I underwent an ultrasound and had a dye injection so that doctors could see intricate details of the blood vessels deep inside my eye.

After about six hours of tests, Dr. McCannel gave me the diagnosis. I have ocular melanoma, a rare but aggressive form of eye cancer. Only 2,000 people are diagnosed with ocular melanoma each year in the United States, and many patients don’t realize they have it until it has spread to other parts of their bodies. Doctors still aren’t sure exactly what causes it. But they do know that once ocular melanoma has spread to other parts of the body, it is universally fatal.

I was lucky. Mine was found early enough that not only was Dr. McCannel able to save my life, she was able to save my sight. In many cases, the eye is simply removed to prevent the spread of cancer. But in my case, doctors at UCLA were able to offer what’s known as brachytherapy.

In order to treat my cancer, Dr. McCannel performed a biopsy and stitched a radioactive gold plaque to the back of my eye. The plaque contained 16 tiny, radioactive seeds that delivered concentrated doses of medicine directly to the tumor, while protecting other sensitive tissue surrounding it. After seven days, the plaque was removed.

Today, my vision is still a bit blurry in my left eye. But once the swelling goes down completely, it should return to normal. The tumor is still in my eye. But I will go to regular visits with Dr. McCannel, so she can measure it and evaluate the effects of the radiation.

I vowed to use this experience to educate others about this rare but dangerous condition. There is no predicting who will get ocular melanoma. And the symptoms are often so subtle that patients aren’t diagnosed until later stages, when their vision and their lives are threatened.

I’m grateful you’re reading this article and, as long as I have your attention, I feel compelled to ask: When’s the last time you went to the eye doctor? Are you due for an exam? If so, what’s keeping you from making an appointment?

I’m glad I did. Had I not made that random call to my optometrist a few months ago, I may never have gotten the chance to see my children grow up.

“Eye” am stronger,

Michelle Martin


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