Surgery (Enucleation) for Retinoblastoma

Surgery is not needed for all retinoblastomas, especially for smaller tumors. But if a tumor gets quite large before it is found, vision in the eye has often already been destroyed, with no hope of getting it back. The usual treatment in this case is enucleation, an operation to remove the whole eye, plus part of the optic nerve attached to it. This is done while the child is under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep).

During the same operation, an orbital implant is usually put in to take the place of the eyeball. The implant is made out of silicone or hydroxyapatite (a substance similar to bone). It is attached to the muscles that moved the eye, so it should move the same way as the eye would have.

Your child will probably be able to leave the hospital the same day or the next day.

After several weeks, you can visit an ocularist, who will create an artificial eye for your child. This is a thin shell that fits over the orbital implant and under the eyelids, like a big contact lens. It will match the size and color of the remaining eye. Once it is in place, it will be very hard to tell it apart from the real eye.

When retinoblastoma occurs in both eyes, enucleation of both eyes would result in complete blindness. If neither eye has useful vision because of damage already caused by the cancer, this is the best way to make sure all of the cancer is gone. But if there is any chance of saving useful vision in one or both eyes, doctors may advise trying other types of treatment first.

Possible side effects: The most obvious side effect of enucleation is the loss of vision in that eye, although most often the vision has already been lost because of the cancer.

Removing the eye also can affect the future growth of bone and other tissues around the eye socket, which can make the area look somewhat sunken. Using an orbital implant can sometimes lessen this effect. ( Radiation therapy, the other major treatment option in such cases, may cause the same side effect.)

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: March 12, 2015 Last Revised: March 12, 2015

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