Rare Eye Cancer – Carol L. Shields, MD
By Carol Shields, MD
As a physician specializing in eye cancer, I have to deliver the news many times a week to my patients that they have cancer. It’s never easy. After practicing medicine for more than 35 years, and meeting all kinds of people – babies; parents of newborns; young, fresh-faced kids; adults in the prime of their lives; the elderly, and those from all over the world, I have seen a wide range of how people react to the tough news that they have cancer. For their sake, and from my own approach to life, I give them the facts, run through their options, tell them to line up their priorities, I stay genuinely very positive because we can, provide support through our incredible oncology team and we get them through it. We have over 98% success rates with our special radiotherapy devices. Our patients do extremely well.
We work hard for every patient. Cancer of the eye can run the risk of metastasizing elsewhere in the body – especially in the brain because our brains are so close to our eyes. They say the brain is the back of the eye – or, if you ask neurologists, they say, the eye is the front of the brain. However you look at it, our ocular oncology department at Wills Eye Hospital has not lost a patient to metastasis from retinoblastoma. We are dedicated to ensuring that. Period.
This past week, eye cancer made national news. Mysterious ocular melanoma cases in North Carolina and Alabama have intensified research and nationwide interest in the root cause of these cases. While researchers and public health officials continue trying to figure out why these young women and men have developed this disease, I see two important overall takeaways to this story:
- Please get an eye exam every year. Whether you have good vision or not, go see a board-certified eye doctor to make sure you have nothing going on that is hiding in your eye. Not every eye problem comes with symptoms. You’ll be glad you had them checked, because if you do find out you have a problem, as a cancer specialist, I’m telling you – you always have a higher chance of successfully treating disease when it’s picked up early than when the issue is more advanced.
- Social media has completely changed the doctor/patient relationship and that’s a good and a bad thing. Patients now have greater support groups, easier access, more information as long as they “trust but verify” and most importantly, don’t have to feel so alone if they’re given that dreaded diagnosis that they have a malignancy. On the other hand, this raises numerous others affected with disease but not necessarily an increased # per population.
I was asked recently by a reporter if ocular melanoma cases may be higher than the “6 in one million ratio” or are there more than just 2,500 cases a year? Since the story broke of the eye cancer cases, there does appear to be more people coming forward throughout the country who are identifying themselves as having had eye cancer. While the 2,500 cases per year number stands for now, the reason why it seems like we’re hearing about so many more cases -- could be because of social media. There are a lot of voices, perhaps some of the same voices, and word is traveling.
All of this points to the fact that when I deliver the news that someone has cancer of the eye, they need and deserve support. We all need and deserve support when we go through a challenging time. And, as we move toward the year 20/20 which is obviously a big year for eye doctors, I encourage my patients to learn, connect and share what they’re going through – whether online or within their family or close circle of friends -- all in the hopes of gaining that vital support which leads to resiliency, strength and knowledge. Support is therapeutic. It can add to your health. Embrace it. It does make a difference. I believe in the scientific advancements in the cancer field, our incredible oncology team at Wills Eye Hospital and not to be underestimated -- valuable support. So that you don’t have to feel you’re alone. It can all lead to successful outcomes. So that when I say to a patient, “Your cancer is gone – your treatment worked. Now go home and enjoy your life.” I factor in the support they received. Those are my favorite days. I’m looking forward to many more of those.
About Dr. Carol Shields: Dr. Shields is the Chief of the Ocular Oncology Department at Wills Eye Hospital. The Ocular Oncology Service is a world-class center for the diagnosis and treatment of a variety of eye tumors and cancers. This service is the largest eye cancer center in the United States and provides care for patients with common and rare cancers, many of which are serious life-threatening conditions. There are a variety of tumors that can exist in the eye’s tissues. They include melanoma, nevus, metastasis, hemangioma, retinoblastoma, astrocytoma, lymphoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
Dr. Shields has authored or coauthored 12 textbooks, over 1400 articles in major journals, over 300 textbook chapters, given over 700 lectureships, and has received many awards. The 5 most prestigious honors include: The Donders Award (2003)given by the Netherlands Ophthalmological Society every 5 years to an ophthalmologist worldwide who has contributed to the field of ophthalmology. She was the first woman to receive this award. The American Academy of Ophthalmology Life Achievement Honor Award (2011) for contributions to the field of ophthalmology, Induction into the Academic All-American Hall of Fame (2011) for lifetime success in athleticism and career, President of the International Society of Ocular Oncology (2013-2015) – This is the largest international society of clinicians and basic scientists interested in ocular tumors, Ophthalmology Power List 2014 and 2016 – Nominated by peers as one of the top 100 leaders in the field of ophthalmology. Dr. Shields is a member of numerous ocular oncology, pathology, and retina societies and serves on the editorial board of several peer-reviewed journals. Each year the Oncology Service manages approximately 500 patients with uveal melanoma, 120 patients with retinoblastoma, and numerous other intraocular, orbital, and conjunctival tumors from the United States and abroad. Dr. Jerry Shields, a pioneer in the field of ocular oncology and the Founder of the Ocular Oncology Department at Wills Eye Hospital, is Director Emeritus.