A study from Australia suggests that people with pterygium, an abnormal eye growth, are at greater risk of eye cancer. Monitoring pterygium can help detect eye cancer, the study says.
But Richard Bensinger, MD, an ophthalmologist in Seattle, Wash., says more research is needed before drawing this conclusion.
Pterygium is fleshy tissue that grows on the eye. It can stay small, growing only on the white of the eye and not causing problems. It can also grow larger, causing pain and irritation. When a pterygium grows over the cornea, it can affect vision.
Pterygium is sometimes called surfer’s eye because the condition is especially common in surfers. It can be caused by exposure to sun, wind and dust. The sun’s strong ultraviolet (UV) rays are particularly harmful to skin tissue. Pterygia are more common in people with dry eyes and also have a strong genetic link.
The researchers in Australia identified all cases of pterygium treated in hospitals in Western Australia from 1979 to 2014. They compared rates of cutaneous melanoma ̶ a skin cancer of the eye ̶ in this group with people who had no history of pterygia.
The researchers concluded that people with pterygium had a 24 percent greater chance of getting cutaneous melanoma than those without the condition.
Dr. Bensinger said he views the study results with caution. By the time people are treated for a pterygium, the condition is usually more serious. Many people may have small pterygia but never need medical attention.
Without including milder cases of pterygium in the comparison of who gets melanoma, it’s hard to confirm that the condition correlates with cancer, Dr. Bensinger said. It could be that people with serious cases of pterygium have had more exposure to sunlight. Sun exposure can cause pterygia and skin cancer, independent of each other.
“The common thread here is that UV exposure is increased in both pterygia and melanoma. The common thread is sunlight, not the presence of pterygia,” Dr. Bensinger said.
Most cases of pterygium are mild. Larger growths may cause pain or discomfort, like the feeling of having a grain of sand in your eye. Pterygia can also look unattractive, red and bumpy. Milder cases are treated with eye drops. More serious cases can be surgically removed.
The Australian study is a good reminder that heavy exposure to the sun isn’t good for the eyes, Dr. Bensinger said. Wearing 100 percent UV-blocking sunglasses, a brimmed hat and spending less time in direct sunlight may help prevent both conditions.
“Everyone should get screened for skin cancers — especially if there is a change in existing skin lesions. But those with pterygia do not need an extra amount of screening,” Dr. Bensinger said.
If you feel something scratchy in your eye or notice a white, pink or red bump or growth, see an ophthalmologist.