Eye cancer

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with eye cancer, we can provide the information you need, from understanding the cancer itself, to choosing the right treatment, to finding support.

What you should know about eye cancer

  • Cancer of the eye happens when the cells in the eye change and affect how the eye works normally.
  • Melanoma of the eye is the most common type of eye cancer.
  • Eye cancer is a rare cancer.
  • The cause of eye cancer is unknown. Some risk factors include fair skin colour, non-brown eyes, exposure to sunlight, moles and a weak immune system.
  • Symptoms of eye cancer include bulging of the eye, some loss of sight, blurred vision, dark spot on the iris, flashing lights, shadows and misting of the eye lens, and eye pain.
  • Eye cancer is diagnosed by an eye examination, angiography, scans and blood tests.
  • Eye cancer is treated by surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

What is the eye?

The eye is the organ of sight. It is shaped like a ball that sits in a little hollow area in your skull called the eye socket. The eyelids protect the front of your eyes and keep them moist and clean.

Your eye has three layers. The outer layer is called the sclera the white of your eye along with the clear part at the front of your eye called the cornea. This layer protects your eye.

The middle layer is called the uvea. The front uvea includes the iris and ciliary body, while the back uvea is the choroid, which is rich in blood vessels and pigmented cells. The iris is the coloured part of your eye with the pupil in the centre, which changes size to let more or less light into your eye. The ciliary body is a muscle behind the iris that changes the size of your pupil and the shape of your lens to help your eye focus.

The inner layer called the retina has nerve cells that are sensitive to light and sends messages to your brain along the optic nerve.

The conjunctiva is a thin membrane that covers the surface of your inner eyelid and the white part of your eyeball.

What is eye cancer?

Eye cancer happens when cells in the eye change and start to grow quickly. They can affect how the eye works normally. Eye cancers are also known as ocular cancers. Cancers in the inside of the eyeball are known as intraocular and those outside the eyeball are extraocular.

In adults, melanoma is the most common intraocular cancer, followed by intraocular lymphoma. In children, retinoblastoma cancer in the retina is the most common intraocular cancer, followed by medulloepithelioma.

Melanoma of the eye

Most melanomas start in the skin but can also develop in other parts of your body, including the eye. Intraocular melanoma begins in the middle layer of the eye, the choroid. This layer has cells that make the pigment melanin, which become malignant.

A small number of melanomas occur in the iris, the coloured part of your eye. If the melanoma spreads to the optic nerve or nearby tissue of the eye socket, it is called extraocular. It may also spread to the liver, lung or bone, or to areas under your skin.

Lymphoma of the eye

Lymphoma of the eye is very rare. Lymphoma usually begins in the lymph nodes that are part of your immune system.

There are two different types of lymphoma and intraocular lymphomas are always the non-Hodgkin type.

Squamous cell cancer

Squamous cell cancer of the eye is very rare as most of these cancers grow in the skin. If they start in the eye, it is usually in the conjunctiva.

Secondary intraocular cancers

These are cancers that have spread to the eye from another part of your body. These are not true eye cancers as such but they are more common than primary intraocular cancers. The most common cancers that spread to the eye are breast and lung cancers.

How common is eye cancer?

Eye cancer is not very common. In 2017 it was estimated that 62 people in Ireland are diagnosed with eye cancer each year. It affects roughly the same numbers of men and women. But some types of eye tumours are slightly more common in men, for example, melanoma and squamous cell cancers.

Cancer publications

For booklets and factsheets, including information about cancer types, treatments, side-effects, emotional effects, financial information and more. Visit our publications section.

Useful resources

Note: Links to external websites are listed below. The Irish Cancer Society is not responsible for the contents of external websites.

Read next: Symptoms and diagnosis of eye cancer.

Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, December 19, 2017