Do we know what causes eye cancer?
Researchers still do not know exactly what causes most eye cancers. But they have found some risk factors (see the section, "What are the risk factors for eye cancer?") and are beginning to understand how some of these factors may cause cells in the eye to become cancerous.
In recent years, scientists have made progress in understanding how certain changes in a person's DNA can cause cells to become cancerous. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes, the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. However, DNA affects more than how we look. It also can influence our risk for developing certain diseases, such as some kinds of cancer.
Some genes contain instructions for controlling when cells grow and divide. Genes that help cells grow and multiply are called oncogenes. Genes that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.
Some people with cancer have DNA changes they inherited from a parent that increase their risk for the disease. Usually, however, these DNA changes are acquired during life rather than inherited before birth.
Scientists have found some changes in oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes in cells from eye cancers such as melanoma and lymphoma. For example, recent research has shown that about 4 out of 5 eye melanomas have changes in either of 2 related genes, GNA11 or GNAQ, which appear to be oncogenes. Other, as of yet unknown, gene changes are probably needed for these cancers to develop as well.
However, it is still not exactly clear what causes changes in these and other cancer-related genes to occur in some people and not others.
Last Medical Review: 06/27/2011
Last Revised: 01/18/2013