Eye Cancer

What is Eye Cancer?

Eye cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the tissues of the eye. It can affect any part of the eye, including the orbit, eyeball, and adnexal. The most common type of eye tumor is melanoma. Eye cancer is the result of abnormal cell growth.

Parts of the Eye & Cancer

Eye cancer usually begins in three specific parts of the eye.

The parts of the eye include:

  • Orbit—The orbit is the tissue that circles your eyeball.
  • Eyeball—Your eyeball is the globe-shaped part of your eye that contains gelatinous fluid. A tumor that forms in your eyeball is called eyeball cancer.
  • Adnexal—The adnexal includes your tear glands and eyelids.

Types of Eye Cancer

There are two main eye cancer types. One type is called primary eye cancer and the other is called secondary eye caner.

Primary Eye Cancer

Primary eye cancers start in the eye. This type of eye cancer is also called intraocular cancer. Different primary eye cancers usually develop in adults and children.

Primary eye cancer in adults:

  • Melanoma—This type of primary eye cancer starts in the cells that make up the iris, ciliary body, or choroid. Left untreated, melanoma can get worse over time.
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma—This cancer usually begins in the lymphatic cells, which are a type of white blood cell. Lymphocytes help your body fight infection.

Primary eye cancer in children:

  • Retinoblastoma—This is one of the most common primary eye cancers in children. It starts in the retina, which is collection of nerves located in the rear portion of the eye.
  • Medulloepithelioma—This cancer is non-hereditary and is associated with the primitive medullary epithelium.

Secondary Eye Cancer

Secondary eye cancer is not technically “true” eye cancer. Secondary eye cancer occurs when other types of cancer spread to the eye. Lung and breast cancer usually spread to the eyes.


Eye cancer symptoms affect your vision and the appearance of your eye. The symptoms you experience may depend on whether you develop interocular tumors. Similar symptoms can also arise from minor eye conditions. They do not always indicate cancer.

Symptoms of eye cancer:

  • Blurry vision
  • Shadows
  • Wiggy lines
  • Bulging eye
  • Eyelid lump
  • Flashes of light
  • Dark spot
  • Eye pain
  • Partial vision loss
  • Complete vision loss


Specific eye cancer causes are currently unknown. However, eye cancer cells tend to mutate and multiply at a higher rate than healthy cells. This can eventually lead to the formation of a tumor.

Risk Factors

Your age, eye color, skin color, genetics, and light exposure can put you at more risk for developing eye cancer. The more of these risk factors present in your life, the higher your risk. Risk factors do not automatically guarantee that you will develop eye cancer in your lifetime.

Eye cancer risk factors include:

  • Lighter eye color—The incidence of eye cancer is higher in individuals with lighter eyes.
  • Lighter skin color—People with lighter skin, such as Caucasians, are at higher risk.
  • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light—Being outdoors in sunny weather or working with certain light bulbs increases your risk of eye cancer.
  • Age—The risk of eye cancer increases as you age.
  • Genetic mutations—If you have a family member with eye cancer, you may be at higher risk. You may also receive genes from your parents that foster the development of an eye tumor.
  • Inherited skin disorders—Some skin disorders, such as dysplastic nevus syndrome, might increase your eye cancer risk.
  • Abnormal skin pigmentation—Individuals with unusual pigmentation on their eyelids and near their eyes are also more likely to get eye cancer.


Eye cancer diagnosis starts with a general eye exam. Your doctor may also conduct other tests to identity issues with your eye or the tissues around your eye. Other tests may include a binocular indirect ophthalmoscopy, eye ultrasounds, blood vessel imaging, and biopsy.

Diagnostics tests for eye cancer:

  • Eye exam—Your doctor will look at your eyes for any abnormal growths, changes in color, or other issues.
  • Eye ultrasound—This test uses sound waves to create images of your eye. It can help your doctor determine if there is a mass or tumor in your eye.
  • Blood vessel imaging—This test looks at the blood vessels connected to your eye. It assists your doctor in finding problems within and around your eye.
  • Binocular indirect ophthalmoscopy—This test uses a special lens to look at the back of your eye. It can help your doctor identify any abnormal growths in your eye.
  • Optical coherence tomography—In this test, light waves render detailed pictures of your eye. Doctors can view and measure the thickness of separate layers of the retina. 
  • Biopsy—During a biopsy, your doctor extracts a small piece of tissue from your eye. The tissue is then further tested in a lab.


There are several treatment options available for eye cancer. These eye cancer treatment options include active surveillance/observation, radiation therapy, and surgery. Laster treatment and cold treatment can also help the condition. The size and location of the tumor determine the treatment.

Active Surveillance

Active surveillance and observation is when your doctor monitors the tumor for growth, without other forms of treatment. This is usually only done if the cancer is small and not growing. If the cancer gets bigger, your doctor may apply additional treatments.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells. This is usually done externally. External radiation targets the cancer cells by using a medical device outside of your body. Your doctor may also use a radioactive plaque placed over your eye.

Laser Treatment

There are different types of laser treatments used to treat eye cancer. One type of laser treatment is called thermotherapy. This treatment uses heat to destroy the cancer cells. Another type of laser treatment is called photodynamic therapy. This treatment uses light to kill cancer cells.

Cold Treatment

Cold treatment is a rare option where cryotherapy is used to eliminate the cancer cells. This treatment is not often used because it can harm the healthy tissue around the tumor. Your doctor may consider cold treatment if your tumor is small.


Your doctor may opt to surgically remove the tumor from your eye or to remove the eye itself.

Surgical options:

  • Tumor removal—During this surgery, your doctor removes the cancer, along with a small portion of healthy tissue.
  • Eye removal—This surgery, called enucleation, removes the entire eye.

Next Steps with MyChart

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