Gov. Blanco’s fight with ocular melanoma brings attention to rare disease

Death of former La. governor brings more attention to ocular melanoma

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - During Governor Kathleen Blanco’s address to the graduates of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in December of 2017, she said she was praying for a miracle.

“There’s no known cure for my illness,” Blanco said. “I am enduring some interesting treatments on a liver that lives in a body that is otherwise healthy and strong and my mind is still very clear, so of course like every person with something dreadful that they’re dealing with, a cancer or heart disease that’s putting their life in the balance, I’m praying for a miracle.”

That miracle never came for Blanco, but Dr. Vince Cataldo, an oncologist at the Mary Bird Perkins Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, says her high-profile case has brought much needed attention to a disease many don’t know about.

RELATED: Louisiana’s first female governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco dies at 76

“We’re talking about melanoma of the skin having at least 100,000 cases of new melanoma of the skin every year, whereas melanoma of the eye, this is a disease that affects only about 1,000 patients a year,” Dr. Cataldo said.

He says this type of cancer primarily forms in the back of the eye and the risks are similar to that of melanoma of the skin.

"Exposure to UV light is known to be a risk factor for the development of uveal melanoma, just like exposure of UV light is a risk factor for the development of skin melanoma,” he said.

About half of those diagnosed can be treated with radiation but, as with Gov. Blanco, the other half of patients will typically see it spread to the liver.

“Once the disease spreads to the liver, it’s an especially poor prognosis disease, with a life expectancy that is exceedingly short," Dr. Cataldo said.

There are no screenings or cures for this type of cancer, which is why Dr. Cataldo says it’s important to pay attention to your body.

“The importance is bringing new changes to the attention of your physician if there’s new changes in vision or especially you develop eye pain,” he said.

Those that are most susceptible are people with fair complexion, light colored eyes, and those who are exposed to UV light. Cataldo says using eye protection, such as sunglasses, is best.

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