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Types of eye cancer

Men and women discussing eye cancer

This page has information about types of eye cancer. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Types of eye cancer

Eye cancers are also called ocular cancers. Ocular is the medical term for the eye.

Melanoma of the eye

Melanoma starting in the eyeball is the most common type of eye cancer in adults. Your specialist may call it uveal or choroidal melanoma. Doctors also group melanomas of the eyeball according to the way the cancerous cells look under a microscope. There are 3 types – spindle cell melanomas, non spindle cell melanomas, and a mix of both cell types.

Lymphoma of the eye

Lymphomas usually begin in the lymph nodes. Very rarely, lymphoma begins inside the eyes. This is called primary intraocular lymphoma. Intraocular lymphomas are always a type of non Hodgkin lymphoma.

Squamous cell cancer of the conjunctiva

The conjunctiva is the clear moist membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelid. Although rare, squamous cell cancer is the most common cancer of the conjunctiva. 

Eye cancers in children

Retinoblastoma nearly always occurs in children under the age of 5. Medulloepithelioma is a very rare type of eye tumour usually found in young children.

Cancers around the eyeball

Cancers can develop in the tissues around the eye. They are cancers of muscle, nerve and skin tissue.

Secondary eye cancers

Sometimes a cancer can spread to the eye from another part of the body. A cancer that has spread to the eye is called a secondary eye cancer.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about eye cancer section.

 

 

Ocular cancer

Eye cancers are called ocular cancers. Ocular is the medical name for the eye. Cancers affecting the inside of the eye are intraocular. And those affecting the outside of the eye are extraocular.

 

Cancers of the eyeball

Intraocular cancers include

Melanoma of the eye

The cells that become cancerous in melanoma are called melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that make pigment or colouring. There are melanocytes in our skin, lips, and the lining of organs such as the eye.

Most melanomas start in the skin but they can also develop in other parts of the body including the eye. If you are looking for information about melanoma of the skin you need to go to the melanoma section 

Diagram showing the different parts of the eye

 

Melanoma of the eye can start in the

  • Eyeball (globe)
  • Conjunctiva (covering of the front of the eyeball)
  • Eyelid

Melanoma of the conjunctiva and the eyelid are extraocular cancers and they are extremely rare. They are treated slightly differently to melanoma in the eyeball.

Melanoma starting in the eyeball is rare, but it is the most common type of eye cancer in adults. Your specialist may call it uveal or choroidal melanoma because it grows in the tissues in the middle layer of the eyeball, the choroid. This layer is sometimes called the uvea, and includes the iris and ciliary body.  

The melanoma starts in the choroid in more than 9 out of 10 cases (90%) of eyeball melanoma. The rest begin in the iris and ciliary body.

Iris melanomas are usually easy to spot, so doctors often diagnose them when they are in their early stages. They are usually slow growing and rarely spread to other parts of the body.

Doctors also group melanomas of the eyeball according to the way the cancerous cells look under a microscope. There are 3 types

  • Spindle cell melanomas – made from long stretched out cells
  • Non spindle cell melanomas (epithelioid) – made from round or oval cells, which are harder to treat and more likely to spread to other parts of the body
  • A mix of spindle and non spindle cells

Treatment for melanoma of the eyeball is with surgery or radiotherapy, or both.

Lymphoma of the eye

Lymphoma usually begins in the lymph nodes, which are part of your immune system.

Very rarely lymphoma begins inside the eyes. This is called primary intraocular lymphoma. Intraocular lymphomas are always a type of non Hodgkin lymphoma. You are more likely to have intraocular lymphoma if you have a weakened immune system. For example, people who

  • Have AIDS
  • Have had organ transplants and need to take drugs to damp down their immune system
  • Are elderly

Intraocular lymphoma is generally treated in the same way as a lymphoma anywhere else in the body. Look in the non Hodgkin lymphoma section for information about the treatment of non Hodgkin lymphoma.

Rare cancers in children

There are 2 main types of cancers of the eyeball that develop in children. These are

  • Retinoblastoma
  • Medulloepithelioma

Retinoblastoma is a rare type of eye cancer that nearly always occurs in children under the age of 5. We have information about retinoblastoma.

Medulloepithelioma is a very rare type of eye tumour found most often in young children. It does not usually spread. Treatment is surgery to remove the tumour. Occasionally, this will involve removing the eye.

 

Squamous cell cancer of the conjunctiva

Squamous cells are flat cells that cover many surfaces in the body. The conjunctiva is the clear moist membrane that covers the front of the eye and lines the inside of the eyelid. Although rare, squamous cell cancer is the most common cancer of the conjunctiva. This type of cancer usually grows on the surface of the conjunctiva but can grow into and around the eye. It is generally slow growing (low grade), and very rarely spreads to another part of the body. Treatment includes surgery to remove the cancer, freezing therapy (cryotherapy) and chemotherapy eye drops (topical chemotherapy).

If you have abnormal cells on the surface of the conjunctiva (conjunctival intraepithelial neoplasia or CIN), you may have topical chemotherapy on its own.  If left untreated, CIN may turn into invasive squamous cell cancer.

 

Cancers around the eyeball

It is possible to get a cancer in the tissues and structures surrounding the eyeball. The areas around the eyes are the orbit and the accessory muscles. Cancers that develop in these parts of the eye are cancers of muscle, nerve and skin tissue.

A cancer of the eyelid is usually a basal cell skin cancer and doctors treat it like any other skin cancer. The skin cancer section has information about this.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare type of cancer that can start in the muscles that move the eye, usually in children. The soft tissue sarcoma section covers cancers of nerve or muscle tissue.

 

Secondary eye cancers

Sometimes a cancer can spread to the eye from another part of the body. A cancer that has spread to the eye is called a secondary eye cancer. In women this is most likely to happen with breast cancer, and in men lung cancer.

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Updated: 17 June 2015