Conjunctival melanoma survivor: MD Anderson saved my eye and my life
I’ve always been a bit of an extremist. So, when I learned that skin cancer runs in my mom’s family, I started seeing a dermatologist immediately. And I was vigilant about it, too. I’d literally take off all my clothes and make the doctor look everywhere during my annual exams. It was almost awkward.
I also became the “mean” mom — the one who makes everyone else’s kid wear a hat and sunscreen while they’re playing outside.
So, when I was diagnosed with conjunctival melanoma — a rare type of eye cancer — in February 2015, I wasn’t really concerned about losing my vision. I was only 30 at the time and my daughter was just 15 months old. But after Googling it — I know: the exact wrong thing to do — I was afraid I was going to die. So I was like, “I’ve got two eyes. Just take the bad one out. Let’s go. ”
Thankfully, Dr. Bita Esmaeli, my doctor at MD Anderson, was much calmer and more rational about it than I was. She told me, “Look, we don’t really have to do that anymore. And we have many other effective options to try first, before removing your eye.” As it turns out, she was right.
My sole eye cancer symptom
Ironically, I had one eye cancer symptom for half my life before I finally saw a doctor. I’d been poked in the eye during a basketball game when I was 15, and it formed a small blood blister on my right cornea. The blister eventually went away, but it left behind a little brown pigment. I know now that conjunctival melanoma can start from any abnormal growth of cells like that, even a freckle. But back then, I just thought of it as residue from the eye injury, like a scar.
My eyes are naturally very dark brown, so the brown spot looked like a tiny part of my iris was leaking out. It wasn’t big enough that people really started commenting on it until after my daughter was born in October 2013. I’d noticed it growing while I was pregnant with her. But I’d also had 20/20 vision or better all my life, so I’d never been to an ophthalmologist.
Then my eye began feeling really itchy. I started blinking and rubbing it, and when I pulled my hand away, I saw a single drop of blood. That kind of spooked me, so I went to a local emergency room. The doctor there did a biopsy. And that’s when I found out I had eye cancer.
Finding the right doctor for my eye cancer treatment
I could not wrap my head around my diagnosis. Most people who have it are older white guys in their 60s, pale with blue eyes. I am all brown, with a dark complexion just like my dad.
I became determined to learn as much as I could about eye cancer. As soon as I had an actual diagnosis, I downloaded 30 different scientific papers from the internet. The top three were specific to my exact type of cancer, and Dr. Esmaeli was the author of two of them. That cemented where I wanted to go. I called and made an appointment at MD Anderson, then drove the eight hours from Lubbock to Houston a few days later.
My eye cancer treatment
After discussing my history, looking at my records and conducting her own examination, Dr. Esmaeli prescribed four rounds of an eye-drop chemotherapy called mitomycin to treat my conjunctival melanoma. I’d need to apply it four times a day for four days in a row, then wait 10 days before starting a new cycle.
Eye drops don’t affect your whole body, so I didn’t experience any of the usual chemotherapy side effects, such as nausea, fatigue or hair loss. But I was still essentially dropping poison in my eye every day, so it could definitely be painful. It also made my right eye super sensitive to light, and I’d get headaches.
The chemotherapy eye drops kept the cancer at bay until I conceived my second child in late 2017. I watched the small dark spot getting bigger as my pregnancy progressed. After my son was born in August 2018, Dr. Esmaeli confirmed that the cancer had returned. She performed surgery to remove the growth, sparing my eyeball, and I completed five more rounds of eye-drop chemotherapy afterward. I’ve been cancer-free since November 2018.
My life after eye cancer
My vision won’t ever be 20/20 again. I’ve also lost some mucosal cells, so my right eye gets uncomfortably dry at times. But I still have both eyes and I don’t need corrective lenses to see, though I do have to wear eyeglasses that filter out blue light when I look at computers or other screens. So, if that’s the worst thing I ever have to deal with, that is perfectly fine.
Most people can’t actually see their cancer coming back. But I can look at the exact spot where it was in the sclera (the white part of my eyeball) every day, so I know where to look for it and what to look for (a brown haze). That’s a little bit of a blessing.
Because the chances of eye cancer coming back are so high, I still have check-ups every three months with Dr. Esmaeli. For the four years I lived in Lubbock, I traveled the 500+ miles to see her in Houston quarterly. And since moving to Tennessee over the summer, I’ve already traveled the 700+ miles from Clarksville once.
But I won’t switch doctors or hospitals, no matter how far away I may move. Because Dr. Esmaeli is the leading expert in my exact type of cancer. And MD Anderson is the best cancer hospital in the world. I see that now more clearly than ever.