Radiation Therapy for Eye Cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. It is a common treatment for intraocular (eye) melanoma. Radiation therapy can often save some vision in the eye, although sometimes this might be lost anyway if the radiation damages other parts of the eye. An advantage over surgery is that the eye structure is preserved, which can result in a better appearance after treatment.

Different types of radiation therapy can be used to treat eye cancers.

Brachytherapy (episcleral plaque therapy)

In this form of radiation therapy, the doctor places small pellets (sometimes called seeds) of radioactive material directly into or very close to the cancer. This has become the most common radiation treatment for most eye melanomas. Studies have shown that in many cases it is as effective as surgery (enucleation).

The pellets of radioactive material are placed inside a small carrier (shaped like a very small bottle cap), which is sewn on the outside of the eyeball with tiny stitches to keep it in place. The carrier is made of gold or lead to shield nearby tissues from the radiation. The radiation from the pellets travels a very short distance, so most of it will be focused only on the tumor.

An operation is needed to put the plaque (radioactive element and carrier) in place. This surgery usually takes 1 or 2 hours and can be done with local anesthetic (numbing medicine) and sedation. The plaque is usually kept there for 4 to 7 days, depending on the size of the tumor and the strength of the radiation source. You will probably remain in the hospital during this time. Surgery to remove the plaque usually takes less than an hour, and you will probably be able to go home the same day. The full effect of the radiation on the tumor is not seen for 3 to 6 months.

This treatment cures about 9 out of 10 small tumors and can preserve vision in some patients, depending on what part of the eye the melanoma is in. The outlook for vision is not as good if the tumor is very close to the optic nerve, which carries visual images from the eye to the brain.

External beam radiation therapy

In this approach, radiation from a source outside the body is focused on the cancer. This is the type of radiation therapy used to treat eye lymphomas. For eye melanomas the use of this type of radiation therapy is generally limited to newer methods that focus narrow beams of radiation on the tumor.

Conformal proton beam radiation therapy: Instead of using x-rays as in standard radiation therapy, this approach focuses proton beams on the cancer. Unlike x-rays, which release energy both before and after they hit their target, protons cause little damage to tissues they pass through and then release their energy after traveling a certain distance. This means that proton beam radiation may be able to deliver more radiation to the tumor and do less damage to nearby normal tissues.

Getting treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the dose of radiation is much higher. In most cases, the total dose of radiation is divided into daily fractions (usually given Monday thru Friday) over several weeks. The treatment is not painful.

The machines needed to make protons are expensive, and there are only a handful of them in use in the United States at this time.

Stereotactic radiosurgery: This type of treatment delivers a large, precise radiation dose to the tumor area in a single session. (There is no actual surgery in this treatment.) The radiation can be delivered in one of two ways.

In one approach, radiation beams are focused at the tumor from hundreds of different angles for a short period of time. The machine used to deliver this type of radiation is known as a Gamma Knife.

A similar approach uses a movable linear accelerator (a machine that creates radiation) that is controlled by a computer. Instead of delivering many beams at once, this machine moves around the head to deliver radiation to the tumor from many different angles. Several machines (with names such as X-Knife, CyberKnife, and Clinac) do stereotactic radiosurgery this way.

Possible side effects of radiation therapy

The main concern with radiation therapy is damage to parts of the eye, leading to problems such as cataracts, retinal detachment, glaucoma (increased pressure inside the eye), or bleeding into the eye. These can result in partial or complete loss of vision or other problems, which might not happen right away. The risk depends on the size and location of the tumor.

Because the radiation is focused only on the affected eye, it is not likely to affect vision in the other eye or to cause other side effects sometimes linked with radiation therapy, such as hair loss or nausea.

For lymphomas, radiation therapy is sometimes directed at the brain and spinal cord. This can sometimes cause side effects such as problems with thinking, learning, and memory, which might get worse over time.

To learn more about radiation therapy, see the Radiation Therapy section of our website or Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

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: December 9, 2014 Last Revised: February 5, 2016

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.