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Helen Mirren's stepson dies from rare form of eye cancer: What is uveal melanoma?

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Helen Mirren is in mourning following the death of her stepson, actor Rio Hackford.

In a statement to People, Mirren and her husband Taylor Hackford revealed that the 51-year-old died from uveal melanoma, “a very aggressive and rare” form of eye cancer.

Helen Mirren's stepson Rio Hackford dies of cancer
Helen Mirren's stepson Rio Hackford died from uveal melanoma, also called ocular melanoma. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

"His life showed us how to live in generosity and community," Mirren and Hackford said. "He shared his life's journey with so many who now mourn him, and at the same time, celebrate their fortune in knowing him."

The Oscar-winning actress and her husband ended their statement by encouraging everyone to be diligent about their eye health.

"We would beg everyone reading this to get their eyes tested at least once a year, which might save their loved ones from this cancer," they said.

Albeit a rare form of cancer among the general population, Dr. Hesham Lakosha, an ophthalmologist at the Halifax Eye Institute, says it’s important for everyone over the age of 40 to get a routine eye exam to catch the potentially fatal disease early.

Uveal melanoma is rare among the general population, but it is the most common type of eye cancer in adults. (Photo via Getty Images)
Uveal melanoma is rare among the general population, but it is the most common type of eye cancer in adults. (Photo via Getty Images)

What is uveal melanoma?

Uveal melanoma, also known as intraocular melanoma, is a cancer that begins in the cells that make the dark-coloured pigment, called melanin, in the uvea of the eye. The uvea is the middle layer of the wall of the eye, which includes the iris.

This type of eye cancer is typically a small tumour that grows slowly and can spread to other parts of the body.

According to Lakosha, uveal melanoma is rare among the general population, but it is the most common type of eye cancer in adults.

Who is at risk of uveal melanoma?

There are a number of factors that can increase the risk of uveal melanoma.

  • Age: People over 50 are more likely to be diagnosed with uveal melanoma and the average age of diagnosis is 55

  • Race: The most common risk factor is a person’s ethnicity. If you are Caucasian, you are at greater risk of developing this type of eye cancer

  • Medical History: People with certain medical conditions can be at higher risk of developing intraocular melanoma, such as having moles in the eye, and oculodermal melanocytosis, a pigmentation of the eye or skin around the eye

  • Family History: Eye cancer can be inherited through family history, but it is uncommon. If it is passed down, it may be due to a gene mutation

Signs and symptoms of uveal melanoma

People with uveal melanoma are often unaware of the condition because there can be no warning signs or symptoms of the condition. However, it is something that an optometrist and ophthalmologist can diagnose and detect during an eye exam.

That’s why Lakosha stresses it’s crucial to go for annual check-ups once you hit the age of 40 to 45 to catch the cancer in its early stages.

“The prognosis is much, much better if the tumour is caught early because we can then provide effective treatment and risk of the tumour spreading elsewhere in the body becomes even less,” he tells Yahoo Canada.

According to Columbia University's Department of Ophthalmology, once the tumour grows, it can cause visual symptoms, which include blurred vision, spots that drift in your field of vision, a dark spot on the iris or a change in the size or shape of the pupil.

“For those who have [visual] symptoms you really should seek medical attention immediately,” Lakosha advises.

Ophthalmologists may closely monitor the tumor if it’s not growing and may wait to treat it until symptoms develop. (Photo via Getty Images)
Ophthalmologists may closely monitor the tumor if it’s not growing and may wait to treat it until symptoms develop. (Photo via Getty Images)

How is uveal melanoma treated?

Uveal melanoma can spread from the eye to other parts of the body. At first, ophthalmologists may closely monitor the tumour, and if it's not growing, they may hold off on treatment until symptoms develop. However, the most common treatment is radiation therapy.

“The treatment very much depends on the size of the tumour and also other factors, including the status of the other eye, the general health of the patient and the patient’s age,” Lakosha explains.

According to the American Cancer Society, radiation can often save some vision in the eye and can preserve the eye structure, unlike surgery.

While there are different forms of radiation. Lakosha says the most common and safest form of treatment is brachytherapy (plaque therapy). This form of treatment involves placing radioactive material on the eye with the tumour and leaving in place for about a week before it's removed.

There are also several types of surgeries that are used to treat uveal melanoma that may involve removing the tumour and surrounding tissue. If necessary, surgeons may need to remove the eye and eyelid.

Uveal melanoma prevention

When it comes to prevention, Lakosha says studies are inconclusive as to whether or not wearing sunglasses can help prevent eye cancer. However, the easiest way to ensure your overall eye health is to receive routine check-ups with your optometrist or ophthalmologist.

“This is a rare tumour, but it can happen," he says. "The message is please go and get your eyes tested regularly by your local optometrist."

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