Definition & Overview

Eye cancer refers to a cancerous growth in the eye, which can be caused by a wide variety of factors. Cancer in the eyes can be a primary cancer, which means that it originated within the eye itself, or it could be metastatic cancer, which means that it developed when cancer form in another organ.

Cancer of the eye, especially a primary one, is not as common as other forms of cancer. A primary eye cancer can affect the outer parts of the organ, including the eyelid, which is made up of a network of nerves, muscles, and skin. A cancer that starts inside the eyeball is known as an intraocular cancer, with the most common kinds (in adult patients) being lymphoma and melanoma. In children, retinoblastoma, a type of cancer that starts in the retinal cells, is the most common kind of eye cancer.

Metastatic cancer of the eye typically develops as a result of lung cancer and breast cancer cells spreading to the eye. However, it is also possible for people suffering from bone marrow, blood, prostate, skin, thyroid, kidney, and colon cancers to develop metastatic cancer to the eye.

The most common kind of tumour in the eyelid is known as a basal cell carcinoma. Typically, this tumour grows around the patient’s eye but is not really known for spreading in other parts of the body. Common cancers in the eyelid include malignant melanoma, sebaceous carcinoma, and squamous carcinoma.

Cause of condition

The exact cause of eye cancer is not very clear, even among medical professionals who have conducted in-depth research on the topic. However, risk factors can be identified more easily than the actual causes. Research shows that eye cancer affects the same number of male and female patients, but some types of eye cancer are more prevalent in male patients (such as squamous cell cancer and melanoma). Research also shows that melanoma is more common in people of Caucasian origin, compared to those of Asian or African origins. Some medical professionals believe that the reason for the prevalence of eye cancer in white people are caused by their lighter eyes, which are proven to be more sensitive to sunlight than darker eyes.

Possible risk factors for melanoma of the eye include increased sun exposure or exposure to UV radiation, the presence of moles, and light eye color. Light eye colors include gray, green, and blue eyes. Research shows that people with brown eyes are less likely to develop eye cancer.

Squamous cell eye cancer, on the other hand, is more likely to develop in HIV-infected patients. This is because their immune system is affected by the viral infection; research also shows that people taking immune system-suppressing medication are more likely to develop squamous cell eye cancer. HPV or human papilloma virus can also increase the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma.

Retinoblastoma, on the other hand, is a type of eye cancer that only affects children. Many cases of this type of eye cancer occur because the patient inherited a faulty gene from one or both of the parents. However, 60% of retinoblastoma occurs in patients whose parents are not diagnosed with the faulty gene that causes the condition, but research shows that children born to older mothers are at a slightly higher risk of developing retinoblastoma.

Key Symptoms

There are many symptoms attributed to eye cancer. However, it is important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, and it is always best to consult with a medical professional to confirm the presence of eye cancer.

People suffering from eye cancer can experience a partial or complete loss of sight. Pain in the eyeballs or around the eye can be observed by some patients, but this symptom is quite rare with eye cancer. Typically, pain occurs when the cancer has spread to the outer part of the eye. Blurred vision is also a symptom, as well as the bulging of one eye. A significant change in the eye’s appearance can also be a sign of eye cancer.

Eye cancer can also cause several conditions include seeing flashes of light, spots, or wiggly lines in front of the eyes. Loss of one’s peripheral vision is also quite common; patients can see whatever is directly ahead of them quite clearly, but cannot see from the peripherals or the sides. A dark spot appearing on the iris or the colored part of the eye, is another symptom.

In retinoblastoma, patients can be observed with having crossed eyes or strabismus, a yellowish or whitish glow in the pupil, a partial or complete loss of vision. Some patients suffering from retinoblastoma can also experience pain and redness in one or both eyes.

Who to See & Types of Treatments Available

When you experience the symptoms described above, it is best to consult with a GP first, who can then order the tests and screenings to confirm the presence of eye cancer. If you do indeed have eye cancer, your GP will refer you to an ophthalmologist or an eye surgeon for further treatment.

Laser therapy can be performed in some forms of eye cancer. Radiotherapy is often agreed upon by an ophthalmologist and a radiation oncologist as a form of treatment, and the decision will heavily depend on the location and size of the tumor. Proton therapy, a type of modern radiation treatment, is prescribed by many medical professionals to help conserve healthy tissues and the optic nerves.

In more serious cases, surgery might be prescribed. The eye can be removed in an enucleation, which still leaves the eyelid and eye muscles intact after removing the eyeball. After this procedure, a prosthesis will be inserted. The contents of the eye can also be removed, with the sclera left to give the patient a more normal appearance to the eye. Treatments for more drastic cases include exenteration (removing the eye, the contents of the orbital region, and the eyelids), an eye wall resection, the removal of the choroid layer between the retina and the sclera, and removing the ciliary body muscle and the iris.

Chemotherapy is also available for patients suffering from eye cancer.


  • General Information: Malignant Conjunctival Tumors, The Eye Cancer Network
  • Lymphoma of the Conjunctiva, The Eye Cancer Network
  • Eye Cancer, Cancer Research UK
  • Ophthalmology, M Yanoff
  • Intraocular Melanoma Treatment, National Cancer Institute
  • Surgical Procedures, American Society of Ocularists
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