Around 750 cases of eye cancer (cancer of the eye) are diagnosed in the UK each year.
There are several forms of cancer that affect the eyes, including:
- Eye melanoma
- Squamous cell carcinoma
- Retinoblastoma – childhood cancer
Cancer can also sometimes develop in the tissues surrounding your eyeball or spread to the eye from other parts of the body, such as the lungs or breast.
This section discusses melanoma of the eye, which is one of the most frequent kinds of eye cancer.
More information on various kinds of eye cancer may be found on the Cancer Research UK website.
Eye cancer symptoms
Eye cancer may not often present visible signs and may be detected only during a routine eye checkup.
Eye cancer symptoms might include: • shadows, flashes of light, or wavy lines in your vision • impaired vision
- an enlarging black patch on the eye
- partial or total loss of vision
- bulging of 1 eye
- a lump on the lid or in the eye that is getting bigger
- pain in or around the eye, although this is rare
These symptoms can also be caused by less serious eye conditions, so they are not necessarily a sign of cancer.
But it is important to have the symptoms checked by a doctor as soon as possible.
Melanoma of the eye
Melanoma is a kind of cancer that arises from pigment-producing cells known as melanocytes.
The majority of melanomas grow in the skin, but they can also develop in other regions of the body, including the eye.
Ocular melanoma is most commonly seen in the eyeball. Doctors may refer to it as uveal or choroidal melanoma, depending on which region of your eye is afflicted.
It can also affect the conjunctiva or the eyelid.
What causes melanoma of the eye?
Melanoma of the eye develops when pigment-producing cells in the eyes divide and increase at an abnormally fast rate. This results in the formation of a tumour, which is a lump of tissue.
It’s not exactly clear why this happens, but the following factors can increase the risk of it happening:
- lighter eye color – if you have blue, gray or green eyes, you have a higher risk of developing eye melanoma than people who have brown eyes
- white or pale skin – melanoma of the eye mostly affects white people and is more common in fair-skinned people
- unusual birthmarks – if you have birthmarks that are irregularly shaped or unusually colored, you are more at risk of developing skin cancer and eye melanoma
- use of tanning beds – there is some evidence to suggest that, for example, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from tanning beds may increase the risk of developing ocular melanoma
- excessive sun exposure – this increases your risk of skin cancer and may also be a risk factor for developing eye melanoma
Ocular melanoma risk increases with age, with the majority of instances identified in persons in their 50s.
On the Cancer Research UK website, you can learn about the risk factors for various forms of eye cancer.
Diagnosis of melanoma of the eye
If your GP or optician (optometrist) suspects you have a serious eye problem, they will refer you to a specialist eye doctor called an ophthalmologist for assessment.
If they suspect you have melanoma of the eye, they will refer you to a specialist eye cancer centre.
There are 4 centers in the UK located in London, Sheffield, Liverpool and Glasgow.
You are likely to have a range of different tests at the centre, including:
- eye examination – to examine the structures of your eyes in more detail and detect abnormalities
- ultrasound examination of the eye – a small probe placed over the closed eye uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the inside of the eye; this allows your doctor to learn more about the tumor’s location and size
- fluorescein angiogram – where pictures of suspected cancer are taken using a special camera after a dye has been injected into your bloodstream to highlight the tumor
Occasionally, a thin needle may be used to remove a small sample of cells from the tumor (biopsy).
The genetic information in these cells is analyzed to give an indication of the cancer’s chances of spreading or returning.
Treatment of ocular melanoma
Treatment for melanoma of the eye is determined by the tumor’s size and location.
Your care team will explain each treatment option in detail, including the benefits and potential complications.
Treatment will be aimed at saving the affected eye whenever possible.
The main treatments for ocular melanoma are:
- brachytherapy – tiny plates lined with radioactive material called plaques are inserted near the tumor and left in place for up to a week to kill cancer cells
- external beam radiotherapy – a machine is used to carefully aim beams of radiation at the tumor to kill the cancer cells
- surgery to remove the tumor or part of the eye – this may be possible if the tumor is small and you can still see in the eye
- Enucleation, or the removal of the eye, may be required if the tumour is huge or if you have lost your vision. An artificial eye that matches your other eye will ultimately replace the removed eye.
Chemotherapy is rarely used for ocular melanoma, but may be appropriate for other types of eye cancer.
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about eye cancer treatment options and types of eye cancer surgery.
Outlook for eye melanoma
The prognosis for melanoma of the eye is determined by the size of the tumour at the time of diagnosis, as well as which components of the eye are affected.
- approximately 8 out of 10 people (80%) diagnosed with a small eye melanoma will live for at least 5 years after diagnosis;
- approximately 7 out of 10 people (70%) diagnosed with a medium-sized eye melanoma will live for at least 5 years after diagnosis;
- 50% of those with a big ocular melanoma who are diagnosed will survive for at least 5 years following their diagnosis.
More information on the phases of eye cancer, as well as statistics and the outlook for eye cancer, may be found on the Cancer Research UK website.