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Eye cancer risks and causes

Men and women discussing eye cancer

This page is about the risk factors and causes of eye cancer. You can find the following information


A quick guide to what's on this page

Risks and causes of eye cancer

Eye cancer is very rare in the UK. We don't know exactly what causes it. But we do know about some of the things that increase people’s risk of getting the different types of eye cancer.

Melanoma of the eye is more common in people with light eyes, people with a lot of moles, and possibly in people who have had too much exposure to sunlight.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the eye is more common in people with a weakened immune system, including those with HIV. Sunlight exposure increases the risk of SCC in people with a weakened immune system. Infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) is a likely cause. But HPV infection is very common and most people infected don’t get eye cancer so other factors are probably involved. 

Lymphoma of the eye is also more common in people with a weakened immune system.

Kaposi's sarcoma of the eye is more common in people with HIV or AIDS. But it is a very rare tumour.

Retinoblastoma is a rare type of eye cancer. It most commonly affects children under the age of 5. About 4 out of 10 retinoblastomas (40%) are due to an inherited faulty gene. This means they run in families.

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How common eye cancer is

There are different kinds of eye tumour and we know more about the risks for some than others. Eye cancer is very rare in the UK, with only around 530 cases diagnosed each year. 

Eye cancer affects roughly the same numbers of men and women. But some types, such as melanoma and squamous cell cancer, are slightly more common in men.


What a risk factor is

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is a risk factor. Different cancers have different risk factors. Having one or more risk factors of a disease does not mean that you will definitely get it.

We know of a few possible risk factors for eye cancer. We have included information about factors where there is enough evidence to say there is increased risk as well as factors that might affect risk.


Melanoma of the eye

The possible risk factors for eye melanoma include

Age and gender

Most people diagnosed with eye melanoma are over the age of 50. It is slightly more common in men than women.


Melanoma of the eye is more common in white than black people.

Eye colour

People with blue, grey or green eyes are more likely to develop eye melanoma than people with brown eyes.

People who have abnormal brown spots (pigmentation) on their uvea (called oculodermal melanocytosis) or iris (called iris naevus) are at an increased risk of developing eye melanoma too.


Some families tend to have large numbers of moles on their skin, or moles that are unusual (doctors call them atypical). The atypical moles tend to be an irregular shape or colour. They also have a tendency to become cancerous. People with moles like this have a higher than average risk of skin melanoma and eye melanoma.

Inherited cancer syndromes

Doctors have identified a rare inherited condition called BAP1 cancer syndrome. Families with this have a change (mutation) in the BAP1 gene. People with this gene change have an increased risk of uveal melanoma, skin melanoma and some other cancers.


We know that over exposure to sunlight is a definite risk factor for melanoma of the skin. It has also possibly been linked to melanoma of the eye but there is only weak evidence for this.

Exposure to UV radiation for some workers

Some studies have reported a slightly increased risk of melanoma of the eye in people working as welders. We don’t know whether this risk is due to UV radiation from the tools used for welding or other factors.

Use of sunbeds

Exposure to artificial UV radiation, for example sunbeds, increases the risk of eye melanoma.


Squamous cell eye cancer

The risk factors for squamous cell eye cancer include

Infection with HIV

People who have HIV are at a higher risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the conjunctiva of the eye. This is almost certainly because of the effect of the virus on their immune systems.

Drugs that suppress the immune system

People who have an organ transplant need to take drugs to stop their immune systems rejecting the new organ. These drugs damp down the immune system generally. Because of this, these people are at an increased risk of some types of cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma of the eye.

Human papilloma virus infection

Human papilloma virus (HPV) may cause squamous cell carcinoma of the eye in combination with other factors. The virus causes squamous cell cancers elsewhere in the body. Infection with HPV is very common and not everyone infected will get cancer. So there are probably other factors working with the HPV that explain why some people get it and others don’t.


Sun exposure has been linked to a higher risk of squamous cell carcinoma of the eye. This type of cancer is more common in areas of the world where the sun’s light is stronger than in the UK.


Lymphoma of the eye

Anyone whose immune system is not working as well as it should be may be more likely to develop lymphoma of the eye. This includes people who

  • Are taking drugs to stop organ rejection after a transplant
  • Have HIV or AIDS
  • Have auto immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Are born with rare medical syndromes which affect their immunity

Even so, people without any of these risk factors can still develop an eye lymphoma. As with other types of lymphoma, there appears to be an increasing number of cases in people who don't have problems with their immune systems. But we don’t know why this should be. The risk is highest between the ages of 50 and 60.

A bacteria called chlamydophila psittaci may increase the risk of a type of eye lymphoma called ocular adnexal malt lymphoma. Chlamydophila psittaci can be caught by exposure to infected birds or domestic animals such as cats. This infection is rare in Europe and some studies in America have found no link with ocular adnexal malt lymphoma. This may be because of differences in exposure to chlamydophila psittaci in different countries.


Kaposi's sarcoma of the eye

Kaposi's sarcoma of the eye is also called ocular Kaposi's sarcoma. People who have HIV or AIDS have a much higher risk of developing ocular Kaposi's sarcoma than the general population. But the risk is still small because ocular Kaposi's sarcoma is a very rare tumour.



Retinoblastoma is a rare type of eye cancer. In Britain around 45 children each year are diagnosed. It most commonly affects children under the age of 5. About 4 out of 10 retinoblastomas (40%) are a heritable form. This means it can run in families. Some children are born with a change (mutation) in the retinoblastoma gene (RB1 gene) that they inherited from one of their parents. Or this gene change happened in the very early stages of the child's development in the womb. They can then pass on this mutation to their children in the future.

Scientists are looking into the possible causes of the non heritable form of retinoblastoma. One Swedish study has shown that children born to older mothers have a slightly higher risk of retinoblastoma. But, a more recent study did not find an increased risk for children of older mothers. One study has shown that children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy had double the risk of retinoblastoma but more studies are needed to confirm this.

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Updated: 13 August 2015