The good news about eye cancer is that it is not a common cancer: Only 5 in every 1 million adults will develop it in their lifetime. However, though uncommon, it’s in our patients’ best interest to understand the basic facts around the disease.
Types of Eye Cancer
Eye cancers can be grouped into two basic types:
- Cancer affecting the outer portions of the eye. These include the eyelid and the inner or outer corners of the eye. It’s worth mentioning that there are many benign, non-cancerous growths that can form on the eyelid or even within the wall of the eye.
- Cancer that originates inside the eyeball itself. This is called intraocular cancer. In adults, it can be either lymphoma or melanoma. In kids, retinoblastoma is the most common form of eye cancer and forms in the cells of the retina.
Eye cancer—just like any form of the disease–can spread to other areas of the body, a process known as metastasis. With intraocular eye cancer, the most common organ for the cancer to metastasize to is the liver.
Signs and Symptoms of Eye Cancer
Intraocular melanoma doesn’t often present with signs or symptoms. It doesn’t hurt, and though it’s an uncommon diagnosis, it’s typical for patients to have no suspicion that there’s anything wrong with their vision. Your optometrist can diagnose such cancers during a regular comprehensive eye exam.
While the hallmark of eye cancer is a painless loss of vision, some people do experience symptoms that can include:
- Difficulty seeing
- Blurring of vision
- One eye that feels slightly sore
- A loss of part of the field of vision
- Seeing flashes of light
- Squiggles, spots or floaters
- A dark, discolored spot on the iris
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your eye doctor immediately. Many of these symptoms also correlate with other eye emergencies or diseases that could cause you to lose your vision, including retinal detachment, macular degeneration and glaucoma.
Every cancer diagnosis is different, due to the stage and grade of the disease, the specific area of the eye it affects, and the age and health of the patient. Treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation, laser therapy and cryotherapy (freezing of the eye tissue to kill cancer cells).
If the tumor is small and slow-growing, doctors may recommend a “wait and see” approach through active surveillance and observation, especially if the tumor is in a patient’s only working eye, if the patient is elderly, or if the treatment would cause more severe discomfort than the cancer itself.
Surgical removal of the tumor and some of the surrounding tissue is often necessary to treat aggressive cancers, to prevent its spread to other bodily organs. Unfortunately, such surgeries often result in either severe reduction in vision in that eye or total removal of the eye, a procedure known as enucleation.
While losing an eye to eye cancer is both an emotional and a physical loss, it may be necessary to save a patient’s life. Losing vision in one eye means a loss of depth perception, but most patients adjust well over time and with therapy.
What can you do?
Early diagnosis is critical in eye cancer, especially ocular melanoma, an aggressive and often deadly form of the disease. The most important step you can take is to schedule your annual comprehensive eye exam that includes dilation so that your optometrist can thoroughly examine your eye to rule out eye cancer.