Decorative image

Types

The type of eye cancer you have depends on the type of cell the cancer started in.

Cancer that starts in the eye is called primary eye cancer. This section is about primary eye cancer.

Secondary eye cancers

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

If your cancer has spread to the eye, go to information about your primary cancer.  

Ocular cancer

Eye cancers are called ocular cancers. Ocular is the medical name for the eye. Eye cancer is very rare. Around 750 cases are diagnosed in the UK each year. 

Cancers affecting the inside of the eye are intraocular. Those affecting the outside of the eye are extraocular.

Cancers of the eyeball

Intraocular cancers (affecting the inside of the eye) include:

Melanoma starts in cells called melanocytes. They are cells that make pigment or colouring. There are melanocytes in our skin, lips, and the lining of organs such as the eye.

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
Uveal or choroidal melanoma

Melanoma starting in the eyeball is rare. Uveal melanoma is the most common type of eye cancer in adults.

The uvea is the middle layer of the eye and has 3 parts:

  • iris (the coloured part)
  • ciliary body
  • choroid

Most uveal melanomas develop in the choroid part of the uvea. Your eye specialist may call this choroid melanoma. 

The rest of uveal melanomas 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.

Melanoma of the conjunctiva and eyelid

Melanoma of the conjunctiva and the eyelid are extraocular cancers and are extremely rare. Treatment for this is slightly different to uveal melanoma.

You usually have surgery or radiotherapy, or a combination of these to treat melanoma of the eyeball.

Lymphoma usually begins in cells of the immune system called lymphocytes. These cells are found in the spleen, thymus, bone marrow and other parts of the body.

Lymphoma of the eye is divided into 2 groups:

  • primary intraocular lymphoma 
  • ocular adnexal lymphoma
Primary intraocular lymphoma

These develop inside the eyes. Primary intraocular lymphoma is rare and represents less than 1% of all eye cancers.

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
Ocular adnexal lymphoma

Some eye lymphomas develop in the tissue surrounding the eyes. These are called ocular adnexal lymphomas and are extremely rare. 

Primary intraocular lymphoma and ocular adnexal lymphoma are generally treated in the same way as a lymphoma anywhere else in the body.  They are usually treated with radiotherapy to the eye and chemotherapy. Other treatments may include immunotherapy.

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

  • retinoblastoma
  • medulloepithelioma

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastoma starts in the retina and most commonly affects children under the age of 5. Although this can be very distressing and frightening for the child and their parents, more than 9 out of 10 children (90%) are cured.

Medulloepithelioma

Medulloepithelioma is a very rare type of eye cancer that can develop in young children under the age of 10 years. It usually develops in the ciliary body and is generally slow growing. It does not usually spread.

Symptoms include:

  • changes in vision
  • bulging of the eye
  • pain around the eye

Treatment is usually surgery to remove the cancer and your child might have to have their eye removed. This operation will take some time to get used to. The specialists looking after your child will explain the operation and support you and your child through this. 

Rarely some adults have been diagnosed with this. This may be due to slow growing cancer that developed at a young age and was diagnosed later. 

Squamous cells are flat and cover many surfaces in the body.  Most squamous cell cancers are found on the skin. But they can develop in other parts of the body including the eye.

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.

This 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 other parts of the body.

Symptoms include:

  • red eye
  • irritation around the eye
  • sensation of something in the eye
  • white painless growth on the surface of the eye

Treatment includes surgery to remove the cancer, freezing therapy (cryotherapy) or chemotherapy eye drops (topical chemotherapy).

Conjunctival intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN)

Sometimes cells on the surface of the conjunctiva can look abnormal. These cell changes are called conjunctival intraepithelial neoplasia (CIN) and are usually diagnosed with a biopsy. You may have treatment with surgery or topical chemotherapy. 

CIN is a pre-cancerous change. If left untreated, it may turn into invasive squamous cell cancer and may spread to other parts of the body.

Cancers around the eyeball

The areas around the eyes are the orbit (eye socket) and the accessory muscles. Cancers that develop in these parts of the eye are cancers of muscle, nerve and skin tissue.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC)

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is a cancer found on the skin around the body, often caused by sun exposure. It is also called a ‘rodent ulcer’. It can be found on the eyelids. Doctors treat it like any other basal cell skin cancer.

Squamous cell skin cancer

Most squamous cell cancers are found on the skin and develop in areas that are exposed to the sun. This includes the eyelids.

Squamous cell cancers don't often spread. If they do, it's most often to the deeper layers of the skin. They can spread to nearby lymph nodes and other organs causing secondary cancers, but this is unusual.

Lacrimal gland cancer

Diagram showing the Lacrimal Gland

This a rare cancer that starts in the lacrimal gland of the eye. The glands produce a fluid that cleans and protects the surface of the eyelid. Our tears are part of this fluid.

There are a few different types of lacrimal gland cancer including lymphoma and adenoid cystic carcinoma. Symptoms include:

  • a swelling or bulging of the eye
  • a lump around the area of the lacrimal gland (towards the outer part of the eyelids)
  • pain around one eye

The treatment you have depends on the type and size of the cancer. For adenoid cystic carcinoma of the lacrimal gland you usually have surgery first. You may also have radiotherapy or chemotherapy, or both after surgery. For lymphoma of the lacrimal gland you may have radiotherapy and chemotherapy. 

Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is a type of soft tissue sarcoma. Soft tissue include the muscles, tendons and nerves.  Orbital rhabdomyosarcoma starts in the soft tissue around eye. It affects mainly young children but sometimes it is diagnosed in babies and the elderly.

Symptoms include:

  • a droopy eyelid
  • bulging of the eye
  • a swollen eye

As with other eye cancers, orbital rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare cancer. It is important to see your doctor if you notice any symptoms. The outcome of treatment (prognosis) can be good with early diagnosis.

Treatment depends on the stage and size of the orbital rhabdomyosarcoma. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or a combination of these. Your specialist will explain what treatment you or your child will have. 

Last reviewed: 
28 Sep 2018
  • Textbook of Uncommon Cancers (5th Edition)
    D Raghavan and others
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2017

  • Ocular surface squamous neoplasia: analysis of 78 cases from a UK ocular oncology centre
    A Maudgil and others
    British Journal of Ophthalmology,  2013.  Vol 97, Issue 12, Pages 1520-4

  • Teratoid Medulloepithelioma: A Rare Intraocular Tumor of a Child
     D Raoudha  and others
    Journal of Oncology Medicine & Practice,  2017. Volume 2, Issue 2, Page 113

  • Uveal Melanoma Guidelines
    Melanoma Focus, January 2015

  • Squamous cell carcinoma of the conjunctiva
    S Gichuhi and M Sagoo
    Community Eye Health Journal, 2016. Vol 29, Issue 95,  Pages 52-53

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.