Alison Teitelbaum: Paying it forward, one eye exam at a time

July 1, 2021
Don’t wait until you notice a problem to see an optometrist because it might already be too late. That’s the message 41-year-old Alison Teitelbaum hopes readers will take away from her story of having ocular melanoma, a type of eye cancer, detected during a comprehensive eye exam.
Alison Teitelbaum

I picked my optometrist office just because it was down the street from my house. That was my criteria—someone who was super close. It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

When I first sat down with Dr. Dodge Perry, we instantly had a good connection. I actually joked with him at the beginning of the visit saying, “At least when I'm here, I know you're not going to diagnose me with cancer or something like that.” It had been a couple of years since I’d seen a doctor of optometry, and it seemed like one of my contact prescriptions may have changed because my vision was getting a little bit blurry in my left eye. As the visit went on, he got more serious and kept saying, “You know what, I'm going to have you do one more test.” And I'd go and do it. And he'd get the results back and say, “Now, I want you to do another.”

Alison and Dr. Perry
William Dodge Perry, O.D. and Alison Teitelbaum

I said, “Wait a minute—it is cancer,” still joking, until he told me he saw something on my eye and didn’t like the way it looked, but that it would require further testing from a specialist for a diagnosis. So, he got me an appointment with Johns Hopkins that same week. At that time, it didn’t present all of the symptoms, so my specialist and I watched to see if it continued to grow and a year later, I was diagnosed with ocular melanoma.

I was 39 at the time, my kids were little, and I was terrified that I was not going make it. Luckily, we caught it early because I had an optometrist who knew what to look for. Ocular melanoma is the kind of cancer that optometrists may see once in their career—it's incredibly rare. It’s also incredibly insidious because it metastasizes from your eye and ends up most likely in your liver or in your lungs. Without treatment, it's 100% fatal. With treatment, the average is 50% mortality rate. But because they caught it early enough, I have a very good prognosis. That wouldn't have been possible without my optometrist.

"The number one preventative measure a person can take? Show up. Because if an optometrist treats you before you have a symptom, your chances of a positive outcome are going to be a whole lot better.” -Dr. Perry

I had radiation treatment that July, and now I go every six months for check-ups with my ocular oncologist to see if it's metastasized. But Dr. Perry is the one who is actually helping me learn to live as a cancer patient. He doesn’t try to sugar coat anything and is very direct and open. From the very beginning he said, “This is not going to be fun. The treatment is painful and you're probably going to have long-term damage to your eye, but it'll keep you alive. And I will be here to help you through everything you’re going to encounter.”

I really appreciated having someone just sit and walk me through what’s going to happen so that I could prepare myself for it. No other doctor that I interacted with throughout this process did that. But with Dr. Perry, it's all about that doctor-patient relationship and making sure that the patient is in the driver's seat. We regularly talk things through until I feel comfortable that I’m making informed decisions about how to preserve my vision for as long as possible.

"I'm unbelievably grateful that I could help Alison. On some level it was fortuitous because glasses are what brought her for her initial visit. But that’s what we really want people to understand: Optometry’s not just about glasses. It's not just about contacts. It's about all those other issues we can see through the eyes that a lot of people are just not aware of.” -Dr. Perry

I think having a yearly comprehensive eye exam is a critical part of your wellness routine. There are all sorts of online vision and acuity tests out there, but they can’t catch ocular melanoma or hundreds of other issues or abnormalities that an optometrist is trained to detect.

When I was diagnosed, I started telling everyone I know to go see their eye doctor. And my friends started telling their friends—one of whom was also diagnosed with ocular melanoma, which is crazy because it is so rare. And I feel like all of this is because of Dr. Perry. If he hadn’t found that spot, I wouldn’t have gotten treatment, and I wouldn’t have been able to pass this message on. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

About Ocular Melanoma

Ocular melanoma (melanoma in or around the eye) is a type of cancer that develops in the cells that produce melanin—the pigment that gives color to your skin, hair and eyes. Just as you can develop melanoma on your skin, you can also develop it inside your eye or on your conjunctiva. Although it is the most common eye cancer in adults, ocular melanoma is very rare, predominantly found in Caucasians.

Because most eye melanomas form in the part of the eye you can’t see when looking in a mirror, they can be difficult to detect, which is why it is so important to see your optometrist annually for a comprehensive eye exam.

The exact cause of this disorder is unknown, but several risk factors have been identified, including: Eye melanomas typically do not cause early signs or symptoms, although some people may experience:
  • Light-colored eyes
  • Fair skin (inability to tan or skin that sunburns easily)
  • Light flashes
  • Blurred eyesight
  • See dark spots in their field of vision.

William Dodge Perry, O.D.

William Dodge Perry, O.D.

From childhood patient to practicing optometrist at Nova Vision Care, Dr. Perry has gone from hating his glasses to loving them to prescribing them for others. He relates well to those who struggle in school because as a child, he, too, struggled due to a vision issue. However, after being treated by Dr. Rinearson (who is now a colleague), he made better progress in school, ultimately going on to graduate from James Madison University and Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) with honors in 2010. Dr. Perry enjoys working with all ages. For a student or adult who has suffered from concussion or TBI, he works closely with primary care physicians and schools to prescribe and assist in the patient’s recovery. He is past president of the local optometric board and is a member of the Air Force Reserve. Find an AOA doctor of optometry near you.

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