It was November 2017 when Felicia Corbray experienced the first fast, faint flash of light in her eye. A mother of three young children, including six-month old twins, she chalked it up to exhaustion. After the flashes continued for a week though, she mentioned them to a good friend who was an ophthalmologist, and he suggested she come in for an eye exam. After dilating and examining her eye, he found a tumor and referred her to Timothy S. Fuller, MD, an ocular oncology specialist at Texas Retina Associates.
Dr. Fuller confirmed Corbray’s worst fear: ocular (uveal) melanoma, a rare and aggressive cancer. It was a familiar diagnosis as her father suffered from the same disease before dying from it at age 70, and Corbray’s life immediately changed.
What is Uveal Melanoma?
When most people hear melanoma, they think only of skin cancer. However, ocular melanoma, also called uveal melanoma, is the most common form of intraocular eye cancer in adults. This type of melanoma develops in the pigmented cells in the iris, ciliary body, and/or choroid, tissues which are collectively referred to as the uvea.
Uveal melanoma is rare with an estimated 2,000 – 3,000 new cases in the United States each year. The disease is dangerous and often fatal. Uveal melanoma tumors can quickly grow and spread to other parts of the body. Because of this, early detection is critical.
Currently, there is no cure for uveal melanoma. The goal of treatment is to prevent the disease from metastasizing, and the most common approach is a form of radiation therapy called plaque therapy. A small disc-shaped shield known as a plaque encases radioactive seeds on one side and is covered with a thin sheet of gold on the other. It is surgically attached to the outside surface of the eye, over the tumor. The gold protects the surrounding areas of the body from radiation damage. The plaque is left in place for several days, allowing the radiation to treat the tumor. Once complete, it is then removed, and no radioactive material remains on or within the patient.
Dr. Timothy Fuller treated Corbray with plaque therapy, and she also chose to participate in a clinical trial at Columbia University in New York that included an oral chemotherapy medication.
“My diagnosis was a punch in the gut,” explains Corbray. “I was by my father’s side throughout his battle with this disease, and I was always assured it was not hereditary so I never thought I would get it. Everything happened so quickly, and Dr. Fuller was wonderful. We discussed the plaque therapy, and I was treated within two weeks of my diagnosis.”
Even though the disease was caught and treated early, Corbray is still considered high-risk, as determined by a fine needle tissue biopsy of her tumor performed at the time of her radiation therapy. The ability to predict which patients are more likely to develop metastatic disease has been enhanced by this technique, whereby a small sample of the tumor is sent for a “genetic expression profile.” Comparing the sample to hundreds of patients who have come before, ocular oncology specialists are now able to give both the patient and their medical oncologist a better idea about the patient’s metastatic risk.
Accordingly, Corbray undergoes eye exams and scans, including MRIs and CTs, every three months, a more intense monitoring regimen compared to lower risk patients, to watch for recurrence or development of metastatic disease. She also travels to New York every three months for follow-up on her clinical trial treatment there.
“I’m doing pretty good now and sometimes even forget that I have this disease, but I don’t take anything for granted,” she shares.
Education and Early Detection
Corbray credits how well she is doing to catching the disease early through a dilated eye exam and is now on a mission to educate others about the importance of this annual appointment. While some uveal melanoma patients experience blurred or decreased vision, floaters or light flashes like Corbray did, most are diagnosed during a dilated eye exam and do not have any symptoms prior to that.
“I don’t want to hide from this disease,” she explains. “So many people have never even heard of uveal melanoma. It has become my personal mission to raise awareness, especially about the importance of getting regular dilated eye exams. I always had good vision and didn’t wear glasses or contacts so I didn’t think I needed to get my eyes checked. Now I know this simple annual appointment can save your life.”
Corbray recently shared her story at a charity event for the AIM at Melanoma Foundation, an organization working to better understand all forms of the disease, and she remains committed to educating the community while also focusing on her young family.
“This experience has opened my eyes and put things in perspective,” says Corbray. “I stay focused on what is most important — my three children and my husband — and enjoy every day as much as possible.”
Ocular Melanoma Care at Texas Retina Associates
Because it is such a rare disease, only a small number of doctors in the United States treat ocular melanoma. Texas Retina Associates has three physicians who do:
Click here for more information about all of our ocular cancer care.