RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Shanice Cole didn't quite realize how much she took her sight for granted until she realized she might lose it.

For years, she thought she had a bad astigmatism, so she wore contacts and glasses to correct her vision. But then in 2011, she tried to join the Army Reserve and was diagnosed with keratoconus.

Only about one in 2,000 people will develop keratoconus, a disorder of the eye that causes the cornea, which is normally round, to become cone-shaped. It develops most often when people are in their teens or 20s, and eventually worsens over time, sometimes causing legal blindness.

Cole, a Richmond resident, wasn't able to join the military because of that diagnosis, and she was scared about her future. She especially had trouble with her vision in her left eye, and she worried she would lose sight completely in that eye.

"It was scary because all your life, you don't recognize how important it is," said Cole, who is 29.

Her vision was really blurry, and she struggled at night when the glare of lights was sometimes blinding. She wore hard contacts, rather than the soft type most wear, in an effort to correct her vision.

But eventually she met Dr. Joseph Iuorno, an ophthalmologist and cornea specialist with Commonwealth Eye Care Associates, and received a procedure called cross-linking.

The procedure takes only about an hour, and involves strengthening the cornea to prevent the keratoconus from progressing. It was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration only about two years ago.

Now, Cole doesn't have to worry about losing her sight. She still has to wear glasses and contacts because the procedure doesn't reverse the keratoconus, it just stops it from progressing.

The ultimate surgical way to treat keratoconus is through a cornea transplant, Iuorno said. But that surgery wasn't really an option for Cole, who is an avid athlete and plays tackle football. She couldn't play contact sports if she got a cornea transplant because she would risk damaging the cornea.

"I've played it all my life, so I didn't want to just stop, because I'm still young, I can still play," she said. "It kind of hit me hard that my only option was the cornea transplant. ... I didn't just want to stop doing everything I love doing."

But now she's able to continue playing the sports she loves.

Iuorno called the ability to perform cross-linking on patients "monumental."

"Before, you had very limited options when you saw a 15- to 20-year-old kid come in and it was severe," he said. "They had to get used to very hard and uncomfortable contact lenses, and you can't do a transplant on a 15-year-old because invariably they'll get into a fight or play basketball and they'll break the transplant and go blind.

"So this really has changed the way we diagnose and treat keratoconus," he said.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com