Marla Avery hadn't even heard of uveal melanoma until she received her cancer diagnosis in 2008. For a year, Marla had been experiencing blurred vision, causing her to fall down stairs, trip over sidewalks and lose her job as a makeup artist.
As a doctor explained, her blurred vision was caused by a large mass in her eye. The mass was so large, he said, that she might have to have her eye removed.
Marla was devastated. She worked in the beauty industry where appearances mattered, and she knew a missing eye couldn't be concealed with makeup. She also feared how Stephen, her boyfriend at the time, would react.
Losing her eye was a last resort. Marla decided to travel from her home in Dallas to seek a second opinion from an uveal melanoma specialist at MD Anderson, where coincidentally, a family friend recently had been treated for uveal melanoma as well.
Enucleation: Marla's uveal melanoma treatment
MD Anderson's Dan Gombos, M.D., confirmed her worst fears about her uveal melanoma as she sat in an exam room surrounded by her family. If doctors didn't remove Marla's eye, she would die.
Tears welled as Marla looked across the room as her dad nodded in agreement. Her dad had always been her rock, and she knew that if he agreed with the doctors, then this was the right thing to do. She scheduled an enucleation, which is the procedure for removing an eye.
During the surgery, the doctors applied synthetic tissues that would attach to Marla's new, artificial eye, so it could move around like her remaining eye.
Marla has always been one to make light of tough situations. Her family joked that, with one eye, she now would become a "true pirate." Then, the day after Marla's surgery, her family arrived at the hospital dressed as pirates.
"It helped make light of the matter and made it a great day," Marla says with a smile.
A life-changing day
At the time, though, Marla had trouble smiling most of the time.
Self-conscious and miserable, Marla waited two months for her eye socket to heal, hiding behind large round sunglasses.
"I had lost something," she says. "All I could see was a hole and a socket."
Finally, the big day came: the appointment in which the doctor would tell if her she was healed enough to receive the artificial eye. But before she left for Houston, the wind started blowing and rain began to pour. Hurricane Ike had started. The hospital lost power.
Marla panicked. She wondered if she would ever receive a new eye. The appointment was pushed back a few days, but finally the doctor said she had healed enough. An ocularist in Dallas created a new eye for her, hand-painting it to match her other blue eye.
"It changed my life," she says. "He not only helped me as a person. He helped my soul."
Life after uveal melanoma
Best of all for Marla was Stephen's response.
"Marla, I don't care what you look like," he reassured her. The next May, she and Stephen married.
Stephen has stayed by Marla's side through two uveal melanoma recurrences. Together the couple has one daughter, 4-year-old Lucy. They're active in their church, and Stephen is always willing to help Marla with her efforts to raise awareness about ocular cancer. But through it all, Marla has never forgotten how he responded.
"It was then that I knew what I had," she says. "I knew it right then."
Melanoma is one of the cancers MD Anderson is focusing on as part of our Moon Shots Program to dramatically reduce cancer deaths. Learn more about our Melanoma Moon Shot.