When You Can Hardly Believe Your Eye Doctor (But You Should)

How an exam for new contacts revealed a dangerous disease


A regular eye exam revealed cancer for a patient of Dr. Crystal Lee.

Gretta* was in the mood to celebrate. It had been 5 years since she finished her breast cancer treatment, and her oncologist had given her the official all clear at her annual visit a few weeks earlier.

Now her girlfriends were taking her to the Bahamas to mark the occasion. And she wanted a pair of fun color contacts for the trip. 

“She came in for her routine contact lens exam with no specific complaints,” says Crystal Lee, O.D., the America’s Best optometrist who examined Gretta’s eyes. “I certainly didn’t expect to see anything unusual.”

At the beginning of the exam, Gretta, 56, casually mentioned that her left eye had been a little blurry for the last few months. Dr. Lee thoroughly examined Gretta and noticed an abnormality, like a mass, in the macular area behind her left eye.

What’s more, Dr. Lee could not correct the vision in the left eye to 20/20. With Gretta’s breast cancer history, this was concerning enough for Dr. Lee to recommend seeing a retinal specialist as soon as possible. 

Gretta balked. Was this really necessary? After all, she’d only come in for color contacts. Couldn’t she get the contacts now and follow up with the specialist after her trip? 

It’s the kind of reaction optometrists receive all the time, Dr. Lee says. Patients tend to view vision care as more of a hassle than an essential part of their overall health care. 

If a cardiologist gives a patient advice for treatment or next steps, Dr. Lee says, they don’t usually get asked, “Are you sure?” But she says that optometrists get that all the time. “We’re trying to educate them about their eye health, and they just look at us like ‘Are you sure?’” she says. “Yes, we’re sure!”

Dr. Lee followed her intuition and pushed Gretta to go see the specialist. Luckily, Gretta took her advice. The mass turned out to be a metastatic choroidal tumor. Likely the breast cancer had spread to her retina.

As long as it’s not spread anywhere else, she has a good chance of beating it. 

Days like this at the office aren't easy, but Dr. Lee says they do serve as a good reminder that regular eye exams are about so much more than correcting your vision or updating your prescription. They're a key part of a healthy lifestyle. 

*Name changed to protect patient privacy.

 

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