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Looking Deeper



Tanya Kimball lay in the dark bedroom wondering why she couldn’t see out her left eye. Her husband, John, had just turned out the lights. Her right eye easily adjusted.<;p>

“But the night vision in my left eye was gone. Everything stayed dark,” says the 54-year-old, recalling the symptom that began two years ago.

Gradually more symptoms emerged, including flashing lights and occasional sharp pain, like little needles. In earlier eye exams she’d received a diagnosis of optic neuritis, or inflammation of the optic nerve. Now she wondered if there was something more.

“When the flashing lights and pain kept getting worse, I knew I needed another opinion,” she says. “I found Dr. (Christopher) Kelly on Sanford’s website and got in quickly. He saved my life!”

Rare cancer readily recognized

“Within five minutes Dr. Kelly saw the tumor,” says Tanya. “I was shocked, but also relieved. Finally there was something that explained my strange symptoms.”

Dr. Kelly, an optometrist at Sanford Thief River Falls Eye Center & Optical, readily recognized the rare cancer during a dilated eye exam in early November. In practice for seven years, he’d seen this type of rare cancer in medical textbooks.

“Dilation is critical in thoroughly examining the eye,” he says. “My first thought when I saw the tumor was the importance of quickly getting Tanya to the specialized care she needed. Choroidal melanoma is a dangerous cancer that can take not only your eye, but your life as well.”

Dr. Kelly took several steps, all at the same appointment. With special equipment he used a laser, to scan Tanya’s retina, confirming an elevated mass with fluid underneath. He also took photographs of the tumor. Dr. Kelly then sent the laser scans and photographs to an ophthalmologist at Mayo who specializes in choroidal melanomas. Tanya remembers her fear as Dr. Kelly explained his finding. She remembers his support, too.

“It was like he’d known me for years and was my best friend. He took the time to answer all my questions and explain everything as best he could. He was very concerned,” she says. “He kept reassuring me and keeping me calm.”

The path to treatment

An appointment 2 weeks later at Mayo Clinic led to more eye tests and a full-body scan to determine if the cancer had spread.

“That was the good news -- no evidence of spread,” says Tanya. “I still get full-body scans periodically because of the high likelihood of this type of cancer spreading. We want to catch it early and treat it.”

For the eye cancer, Tanya had two treatment choices at Mayo: eye removal or plaque radiation therapy. She chose plaque radiation, a type of internal radiation that gradually destroys the cancer. Ultimately the radiation will also destroy her left-eye vision.

“If the radiation doesn’t work, the eye will need to be removed. We’ll know more this summer,” she says. “I’m just so glad this eye cancer was caught. Without Dr. Kelly, I might not even be here today.”

A trusted team

In early 2013, Tanya added one more doctor to her medical team: Dr. Jawad Khan, internal medicine at Sanford Thief River Falls Clinic. Dr. Khan has been involved in diagnosing and treating several other medical conditions Tanya struggles with including chronic fatigue syndrome, degenerative joint disease, chronic pain and irritable bowel syndrome.

“Now I have two Sanford doctors keeping a close watch on me,” she says. “Dr. Khan and Dr. Kelly are my angels.” Both stay up-to-date on Tanya’s eye treatment, providing local care as needed.

“My medical care at Sanford has been a whole new experience,” says Tanya. “These are doctors who listen, don’t assume things, take in the whole picture and do their best to treat you properly.”

Looking beyond

Despite the many adversities in Tanya’s life, she keeps her focus on the good.

“I have so many wonderful people in my life -- my husband, children, grandchildren, this community,” she says. “And I love our dogs.” Four rescue dogs live with Tanya and John at their home in rural Oklee, 30 miles from Thief River Falls.

The Kimballs also rescued a local bar, naming it TJ’s Tavern. They transformed it into a family-friendly establishment complete with a Ping Pong table and live music. When feeling well, Tanya and John take the stage, singing covers and originals. Their second CD will feature Tanya’s favorites.

“Today I feel great, tomorrow might be different. I take life a day at a time,” says Tanya. “But you know what? Every so often I catch myself thinking everything’s going to be just fine. I’m going to live to be 90. It really could happen!”

Posted Date: June 2013

Looking Deeper

Tanya Kimball never imagined her unusual eye symptoms would lead to the diagnosis of a rare cancer. A Sanford optometrist discovered it, triggering a chain of lifesaving care.