Your Health: Proton therapy treats eye cancer

Treatment that could be life and sight-saving.
Some of the top centers in the United States are using the power of protons to kill cancer and save the eye.
Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 9:31 AM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - 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 melanin-producing cells and they can develop melanoma. Now, some of the top centers in the United States 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 a nucleation, meaning the removal of the eye,” said Dr. Helen Shih, a radiation oncologist at Mass General Cancer Center in Boston.

But for some patients, that may no longer be the case. Dr. Shih is a radiation oncologist with expertise in proton therapy.

Traditional radiation delivers x-rays to the tumor, but the radiation can go beyond the tumor and damage healthy tissue. Proton therapy delivered radiation, through a large machine like this one, which delivers a beam of protons that stops at the tumor.

“We typically go through the white of the eye, which is fairly resistant to radiation. It treats the tumor, and the beam stops there,” said Dr. Shih. “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.”

Proton therapy has been used for years for the treatment of other cancers such as brain cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer.

Dr. Shih says there are only a handful of hospitals and academic institutions across the US using proton therapy for eye cancer.

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