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A biopsy of the eye

Your eye specialist (ophthalmologist) might take a sample (biopsy) of your eye. You have a sample of fluid or tissue removed from your eye and looked at under a microscope. 

A biopsy is not used that often for melanoma of the eye.  A specialist can usually use other tests (such as an examination or ultrasound) to help diagnose this type of eye cancer. If you do have a biopsy, you might have a fine needle aspirate or vitreous biopsy.

You are more likely to have a biopsy if your eye specialist thinks you have lymphoma.

Your nurse or eye specialist will explain the procedure and ask you to sign a consent form. Ask questions if you’re not sure about anything. You usually have local anaesthetic eye drops. These numb the area, but they can sting a bit for a short while after.

Sometimes your specialist will recommend a general anaesthetic so you are asleep during the test. You should know about this before your appointment if a general anaesthetic is best for you.

You usually have this in the operating theatre. You lie on a couch with your head in a comfortable position. After you have the local or general anesthetic, the specialist puts a thin needle attached to a syringe into your eye. They draw out some cells from the tumour. 

This usually takes a few minutes. If you have a local anesthetic you may be aware of something going on, but you shouldn’t have discomfort or pain. Let your doctor know if you can feel anything or it is painful.

The biopsy goes to the laboratory where a specialist doctor looks at the cells closely. This can show whether there is a cancer or another type of eye condition. It can take some time to get the results. You will have an appointment to see your specialist to discuss the results with you. 

You can go home soon after the biopsy. You can take paracetamol if your eye is sore. Your doctor or nurse will let you know how to look after your eye after the biopsy. Sometimes you may have eye drops to take for a few days after. Your nurse will show you how to do this.

A needle biopsy is a very safe procedure. But your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems afterwards. This is usually a number for the ophthalmology department or a ward. It is important to let them know if you notice any of the following around your eye:

  • redness
  • pain
  • swelling
  • bleeding

Vitreous biopsy

A vitreous biopsy is a small procedure to remove some of the vitreous gel in the eye. The gel is also known as humour, it gives your eye volume. You may hear your doctor talk about vitreous humour.  

This biopsy tests for conditions of the eye including lymphoma of the eye.

This is usually done in the operation theatre using a local anesthetic or a general anesthetic. Your specialist explains what happens and asks you to sign a consent form. Do ask any questions you may have.

You may have another eye examination just before this biopsy.

Your eye specialist takes a sample of the vitreous gel from inside the eye. Using a special instrument, a cut is made into the eye. A sample of the vitreous gel is taken using a needle and syringe.

Afterwards this goes to the lab and looked at by a pathologist.

It is likely you will need to wear a patch over your eye for a short time after surgery. Your surgeon will tell you when you can stop wearing this. 

It is usual to have blurred vision in the eye that had the surgery. This can last a few days. 

You may have a red and swollen eye. This is common after this type of surgery and it may take up to a couple of weeks to improve. You may notice bruising around the eye. This will also improve over 2 weeks. 

You have eye drops for a few weeks after surgery. These help to reduce redness, swelling and the risk of infection. You usually start them in hospital and continue with them at home. Your nurse will show you or your relative how to put these in.  

As your vision could be affected you should avoid driving for a time. Ask the eye specialist when you can start driving.

Looking after your eye at home

Your specialist or nurse will advise you how to look after and protect your eye at home, for example:

  • instructions for using your eye drops
  • try to avoid getting shampoo and soap into your eye
  • you should not go swimming for 6 weeks
  • avoid contact sports.
  • avoid using eye makeup

You will have an appointment to return to the hospital for the results. At this time your eye specialist will also let you know when you can start using eye makeup and resume sports.

Getting your results

You will have to wait to get the results. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them. Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

Waiting for results can make you anxious. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

You might have contact details for a specialist nurse. You can contact them for information if you need to.

You can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses for support on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
27 Dec 2018
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  • Cancer: Principles & Practice of Oncology (Cancer: Principles & Practice (10th Revised edition)
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    Survey of Ophthalmology, 2014. Vol 59, Issue 5, Pages 503-16