Cancer of the lacrimal gland

You have a lacrimal gland on each eye. They produce fluid that cleans and protects the surface of the eyelid. Cancer of the lacrimal gland is rare. 

Where are the lacrimal glands?

You have 2 lacrimal glands, one on each side above each eyeball, towards the outer part of the eyelid. The glands produce a fluid that cleans and protects the surface of the eyelid. Our tears are part of this fluid. 

A growth or tumour in this area can be cancerous (malignant) or non cancerous (benign).
 

Diagram showing the Lacrimal Gland
Lacrimal gland

Risks and causes

This is a rare cancer and there is not much known about the possible cause. Research in this area involves small numbers of people and this makes it hard to find a common link.

We do know that lacrimal gland cancers can develop at any age. The average age of diagnosis is around 40 years. 

There are different types of lacrimal gland cancer. One type is a lymphoma of the lacrimal gland. Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system. A person who has lymphoma can slightly increase the risk of developing lymphoma of the lacrimal gland. This is more likely to be diagnosed in people around the age of 70 years.

Symptoms

Many of the symptoms are similar to those of other eye cancers. The following are symptoms that you may notice in lacrimal gland cancer.

  • a swelling or bulging of the eye
  • watery eyes
  • a lump around the area of the lacrimal gland (towards the outer part of the eyelids)
  • problems with your eyesight, such as double or blurred vision
  • pain around one eye

Do see your doctor or optician if you have any of these symptoms. Lacrimal gland cancer is rare and it’s likely that your symptoms could be due to something else. But it’s a good idea to get checked out.

Tests to diagnose lacrimal gland cancer

Tests for lacrimal gland cancer are the same for other eye cancers and may include: 

  • eye examination
  • MRI scan
  • CT scan
  • a sample of tissue (biopsy) of the eye

Types

Some growths (or tumours) of the lacrimal gland are not cancerous (benign). Some of these benign tumours might transform into a cancer. So you would usually have an operation to remove it. Treatment can also reduce or get rid of any symptoms.

There are many different sub types of lacrimal gland cancer. Some examples include:

  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma – this makes up around half of all lacrimal gland cancers. This type of cancer starts in the gland cells that line many parts of the body. Here in the lacrimal glands.
  • Carcinoma ex PA or pleomorphic adenocarcinoma- this is less common type of lacrimal gland cancer. It is an example of a benign tumour that has become cancerous.
  • Lymphoma – cancers that usually start in the lymph nodes or organs of the lymphatic system.

Who treats lacrimal gland cancer?

You are usually looked after by a team of specialists in an eye centre. Your multidisciplinary team (MDT) could include an eye specialist (ophthalmologist), a surgeon and a cancer specialist (oncologist).

Treatment

Your eye specialist will recommend the best treatment for you. The decision depends on:

  • the type of lacrimal eye cancer and where it is in the eye
  • the size of your tumour and how far it has grown or spread (the stage)
  • your general health and level of fitness You might have one, or a combination of the following treatments.

You might have one, or a combination of the following treatments.

Surgery

Often the treatment for most types of lacrimal gland cancers is surgery to remove the gland. Your specialist might recommend that you have the whole of your eyeball and surrounding skin removed.

This is recommended for cancers that have spread outside the lacrimal gland affecting the eyeball, and the skin and muscle around it. This is called an orbital exenteration.

It can come as quite a shock if you need to have eye surgery. You will need time to come to terms with this change. Your specialist will explain your operation and what this means for you. 

Radiotherapy

You might have radiotherapy on its own, or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy. There are different types of radiotherapy treatment for eye cancer. You may have:

  • External radiotherapy - this directs radiotherapy beams at the cancer from a machine outside the eye.
  • Internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) - radiation is given directly to the cancer, using a small radioactive disc.

Chemotherapy

You might have chemotherapy on its own. Or you may have it together with radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy).

If you have lymphoma of the lacrimal gland your treatment will depend on a number of factors including the type of lymphoma you have.

Coping

Eye cancer can affect you physically and practically, as well as emotionally. Being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer can also be difficult because it can be hard to find information. And you may not meet anyone else with your type of cancer. 

Your specialist team is your best source of information. Do ask questions if you’re not sure about anything.

Our discussion forum Cancer Chat is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.

Last reviewed: 
02 Jul 2019
  • Lacrimal Gland Tumours

    A Proia and others

    International ophthalmology clinics, 2018. Vol 58, issue 2, pages 197-235

  • Current treatment of Lacrimal gland carcinoma

    K woo and others

    Current opinion in Ophthalmology, 2016. Vol 27, Issue 5, Pages 449-456

  • Adjuvant Radiotherapy with Three-Dimensional Conformal Radiotherapy of Lacrimal Gland Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma

    V Roshan and others

    Journal of Clinical and  Diagnostic Research, 1015. Vol 9. Issue 10, XC05–XC07

  • Diagnosis & Treatment of Lacrimal Gland Neoplasias
    JL. Tovilla-Canales and others
    Review of Ophthalmology, 2013

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