Eye Cancer: A Rare, Important Eye Health Issue

Cancer is a very broad term, naming a group of more than 100 diseases. In their lifetime, 39% of men and women will be diagnosed with some type, making it extremely likely that you know someone who is battling the disease.

Cancer is the uncontrollable division of abnormal cells in the body which produce tumors. These tumors can either be malignant, causing harm; or benign, not damaging.

Eye cancer, also known as eye neoplasms, defines a variety of diseases that can affect any part of the eye. These diseases can start from within the eye, or can spread to the eye from another form of cancer. These cancers include:

  • Breast
  • Lung
  • Prostate
  • Kidney
  • Thyroid
  • Skin
  • Colon
  • Blood
  • Bone marrow

The Most Common Eye Cancers

Eye cancer won’t just affect the eyeball, as there are some diseases that will affect your eyelids and potentially spread. Basal cell carcinoma is a malignant eyelid tumor; it spreads around the eye, but fortunately not any further than that.

Other types of eyelid cancers include:

  • Squamous carcinoma
  • Sebaceous carcinoma
  • Malignant melanoma

The most common cancer affecting your eyeball is orbital lymphoma. This disease is usually diagnosed through very specific analysis during a biopsy. If the disease is found, patients will usually be offered chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

Uveal melanoma is the most damaging tumor that occurs in the eye. It occurs in the choroid, iris, and ciliary parts of the eye, which is why it’s sometimes known as iris or ciliary body melanoma.

A rarer, but extremely dangerous disease is primary intraocular lymphoma (PIOL). This cancer is easily misdiagnosed as a non-infectious or infectious uveitis, white dot syndromes, or sometimes as other neoplasms such as metastatic cancers.

These are all malignant diseases. One that’s considered benign is orbital dermoid cysts. They’re choristomas, which are collections of normal cells in an unusual location, usually appearing at the junction of the frontozygomatic suture of the eye. It places pressure on your eye muscles, causing double vision, as well as loss of vision.


Retinoblastoma is the most common malignant tumor in children, affecting 325 kids in North America per year. If detected and treated early, there is a 95% of a successful recovery. The symptoms can include:

  • Crossed eyes
  • A red or painful appearance
  • Decreasing or complete loss of vision
  • A white-yellow glow in the pupil

If you’ve taken photographs of your children, take a closer look at them. Healthy eyes will have the red eye reflex, but if there’s a white-yellow dot in one or both eyes instead, it could mean that there’s a tumor or some other type of eye disease.

Medulloepithelioma, also called diktyoma, is the second most occurring eye cancer in children. This disease affects the ciliary body and the uvea of the eye.

What to Look Out For

Uveal, choroidal, and ciliary body melanoma will normally have no initial symptoms, although sometimes the tumor is visible through the pupil. As the tumor grows, symptoms can include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Decreased vision
  • Double vision
  • Eventual vision loss

As the tumor increases in size, it can break past the retina causing retinal detachment. This is extremely dangerous as the retina is the cord that sends the images from your eye to the brain. Detachment could cause permanent vision loss if not promptly treated.

Irises and conjunctival melanomas can be identified as dark spots in those areas. As well, a nevus is a benign freckle in the eye that could eventually become a melanoma. Any spot in your eyes that continues to grow should be checked by a doctor.

Treatments Available

People may be well aware of chemotherapy, which is synonymous with cancer treatment, however the eye is a much more delicate organ and there are many more ways to treat it.

Laser therapy is a very precise treatment, using rays of light to focus in on one specific area without damaging the healthy tissue around it. Plaque therapy is a widely used treatment for choroidal melanoma that delivers a highly concentrated radiation dose to the tumor, described as “rice sized” radioactive seeds, with relatively less radiation to the surrounding area.

Similar to plaque therapy is radiotherapy: this is where your ophthalmologist decides with the radiation oncologist what type of radiation would be best based on size and location of the tumor. Typically proton therapy is most likely to be chosen as it has superior accuracy, helping to spare healthy tissue and optic nerves.

Most treatments for eye cancer involve removing some part of the eye. To dispose of all parts of the eye, including the eyelids, is a process called exenteration. A prosthesis is made to cover the new cavities. In a less extreme example, evisceration removes all of the eye contents except for the whites, also known as the sclera.

Enucleation is a process where the eye is removed, leaving the muscles and the eyelid. An implant is inserted and the patient wears a confirmed shield. Then a prosthetic is made and fitted by an ocularist to look like their real eye.

Iridectomy is a surgical procedure that removes the affected part of the iris. To also dispose of the ciliary body muscle in that procedure would be an iridocyclectomy. You may choose to remove the choroid layer in a choroidectomy.

Lastly, there’s eyewall resection, which is an extremely difficult procedure to perform. It means cutting into the eye to remove the tumor.

You should always discuss eye health concerns with your local ophthalmologists to see what the cause is and the treatments that are available to you.