Eye Cancer: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment, Causes

Written By: Susannah Lockett

Eye cancer is exceedingly rare, which is why we read or hear little about it. Only about 3,000 new cases appear in the United States annually. Compare that figure to new yearly breast cancer cases at about 275,000 and lung cancer cases at about 230,000.

Still, the rarity of eye cancer doesn’t mean much when it happens to you or someone you love. All forms of cancer are frightening, but eye cancer seems to hold even more terror because it not only threatens your life, it may threaten your vision.

What Is Eye Cancer?

Regardless of type, all cancers start the same way and threaten life and health in the same fundamental manner. Cells are programmed by nature to die after their life cycle is over. Cancer cells are those that refuse to die and continue to grow.

This abnormal growth crowds healthy tissues and cells and can damage or kill them. This means that healthy cells can no longer do their jobs. Cancer cells may gather into solid lumps called tumors.

Eye cancers may appear in the eyelids, the eye socket, or the eyeball. These growths can threaten both vision and life. If they press on the optic nerve, they can cause problems with vision and even blindness.

Eye Cancer Is Grouped in Two Major Ways:

Primary eye cancer begins in the eye.

Secondary eye cancer begins elsewhere in the body and spreads to the eyes from there. This is called metastasis.

The chances of blindness and vision loss from eye cancer cannot be predicted. Many factors are involved, but to produce normal vision, the eyes must have all their parts working together. Anything disrupting that could potentially cause vision problems.

Eye Cancer Types

Primary Intraocular Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that can occur anywhere, but we can see from its name that this form begins in the eye. This type of cancer attacks the white blood cells responsible for fighting infections. It’s more common in the elderly and persons with immune system disorders like HIV.

Ocular Melanoma

You’ve probably heard of skin cancer melanoma. However, melanoma can affect any color-producing cell, including those giving us the color of our eyes. This is the most common type of eye cancer in adults.


This primarily affects children, and babies can be born with this type of eye cancer. Before birth, young cells called retinoblasts help to form the eye’s retina. They’re supposed to stop growing when the retina is complete.

However, in retinoblastoma, the retinoblasts continue to grow, forming tumors on the retina and potentially spreading to other parts of the body.

Orbital and Adnexal Cancers

The orbit is the round, bony hole surrounding your eyes. So, cancers affecting the orbit area are called orbital cancers. Those involving the eyelids and tear glands are called adnexal.

Eye Cancer Symptoms

This may include a sudden loss of vision or blurry, fuzzy or foggy vision. There may be flashes of light or a sudden new crop of floaters. There could be spots on the eye’s iris, more noticeable in light-eyed people, and there could also be pupil changes. Your eyes may bulge or look out of position, and you may have trouble moving your eyes.

Eye cancer may have no symptoms at all, which is why annual eye exams are vital. If you have any of the above symptoms, see your eye care professional immediately.

However, keep everything in perspective. Remember, eye cancer is extremely rare.


Diagnosis of Eye Cancer

Your doctor will begin with an ophthalmoscope or slit lamp to look deep into your eyes. A slit lamp looks like a giant binocular microscope attached to a table. It allows the eye doctor to examine your eyes under magnification and with a very bright light source.

Other likely tests include blood tests and biopsies. You can also expect ultrasounds, MRIs, x-rays, and CT scans to help identify cancer, classify it, and begin to formulate a treatment plan.

Treatments for Eye Cancer


A small tumor might be removable while still keeping the eye intact. In other more serious cases, removal of the eye, called enucleation, and orbital reconstruction may be required. In more recent times, more effective treatments have replaced surgery.


The targeted heat of a laser may destroy a tumor. Lasers carry many risks when used for eye conditions, and this is typically not the first-choice treatment. Doctors may try radiation or surgery first.


Like lasers, radiation carries the risk of eye damage. Sometimes, this therapy does work to help preserve vision, and radiation can kill cancer cells. Like laser therapy, radiation therapy is highly targeted and precisely delivered.

One type of radiation treatment for eye cancer is called plaque therapy. This involves placing a tiny disc of a radioactive substance on the eyeball to kill cancer cells.


Chemotherapy uses various drugs to target and kill cancer cells throughout the body. It’s a standard treatment for both leukemias and metastatic cancers. Eye cancer chemotherapy drugs are likely to cause nausea, hair loss, and immune system problems.


This treatment trains or induces the body’s immune cells to attack the cancer. These types of drugs have successfully fought skin melanoma, but their potential effectiveness for eye cancer remains unknown.

Your eye doctor is your best ally for preventing eye disorder complications. An eye care professional is highly trained with years of experience. They may be able to spot a tumor on your iris that an untrained person never would.

The chances of this happening are minimal, but your eye doctor can also help you with all aspects of eye health and care. Keep your eyeglass prescription current and your eyes healthy with an annual eye exam.

Find a Top Eye Doctor Near You

We’re here to help anyone needing a top-rated eye doctor in their area. You can also learn more about common eye diseases and treatment options. It’s what we do, and we look forward to helping you soon.

Published on: Apr 29, 2022
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