- Eye cancer is rare.
- Ocular melanoma is the most common type of eye cancer in adults.
- Most people do not notice any symptoms and the condition is diagnosed during a routine eye check.
- You may need surgery, radiation therapy or medicines to treat eye cancer.
What is eye cancer?
Eye cancer develops when abnormal cells in your eye grow and divide in an uncontrolled way.
Many different cancers can affect the eyes or the muscles and tissue around the eye. Eye cancers are sometimes called 'intraocular cancers.'
What are the types of eye cancer?
If the cancer starts to grow in the eye itself, it is called a primary cancer. If the cancer spreads to the eye (metastasises) from another body part, such as the breast or lungs it is called a secondary cancer.
There are a few different types of primary eye cancer.
The most common form of primary eye cancer in adults is melanoma. It is quite different to the melanoma you get on your skin as it can start in a part of the body that hasn't been exposed to the sun.
Eye melanoma, also called 'ocular melanoma' or 'uveal melanoma', grows in the cells of the eye that produce melanin (the pigment that gives your skin its colour). It affects the middle of the three layers of the wall of the eye which contains a few separate parts. It can affect any of the parts in this layer. You can't see ocular melanoma by looking in a mirror.
Retinoblastoma is a cancer which grows in the cells of the retina (the part of the back of the eye that senses light). It can grow in one or both eyes and occur at any age, but usually in children under 3 years of age.
What are the symptoms of eye cancer?
Many people with eye cancer do not have any symptoms. Your doctor may find the condition when you have a routine eye test.
If you do have symptoms, you may notice:
- blurred vision in one eye
- loss of peripheral vision
- dark spots on the white or coloured part (iris) of the eye
- small specks or wavy lines in your vision
- a change in the shape of the black part of the eye (the pupil)
All of these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions. But if you are worried, talk to your doctor.
What causes eye cancer?
Doctors don't fully understand why eye cancer develops, but there are some factors that increase your risk of eye melanoma, including:
- having light-coloured eyes
- having pale skin
- growing older
- having a lot of moles on your skin
- having a close relative who has had eye cancer
UV radiation from sunlight (or sunlamps) may also increase your risk for melanoma of the eye.
How is eye cancer diagnosed?
If your doctor thinks you might have eye cancer, they will examine the outside of your eye and use special instruments to look inside it.
If you need further tests, your doctor may refer you to an eye specialist called an ophthalmologist. The specialist may check your eye using a special microscope, or take photographs of the back of your eye with a special camera. They may also refer you for other tests, including an ultrasound. Sometimes, you may have a biopsy, where a small sample of tissue is removed to be checked in a laboratory.
How is eye cancer treated?
The type of treatment will depend on the type of eye cancer and how far it has spread (known as its stage).
Usually, you will need surgery to remove the tumour, part of the eye or sometimes the whole eye. After the surgery, you can have an artificial eye implanted, that looks like a real eye.
Other treatments may include laser therapy to destroy cancer cells. If the cancer has spread to other parts of your body, your health team may also offer you radiation therapy or other medicines.
Living with eye cancer
After treatment has finished, you will still need regular checks with your specialists and ongoing tests. Eye melanoma can come back in other parts of the body, so your ophthalmologist will want to review you regularly to catch any recurrence early.
Most people can still see well with just one eye, if they needed one removed, though it can take a few months for your vision to adjust. You may notice ongoing problems with judging distance and seeing things at the edge of your vision (peripheral vision).
If you have an artificial eye, you will need to learn to care for it. You can find more information on the website Artificial Eyes.
After you have had treatment for cancer, it is normal to feel anxious that the cancer will return. If you are struggling, it is important to seek support from your doctor, a therapist or other people who have been through cancer.
Resources and support
For more information and support, try these resources:
- Cancer Council Australia provides services and support to all people affected by cancer — 13 11 20.
- Artificial Eyes provides information and resources on artificial eyes, finding an ocularist and dealing with eye loss.
- The Melanoma Institute Australia provides more information about melanoma.
- Rare Cancers Australia provides information, support and advocacy for people with rare cancers.
- Beyond Blue provides support for people with depression and anxiety — 1300 22 4636.
- General information about cancer is available online in many community languages.
- Read all about cancer for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.
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Last reviewed: October 2023