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Eye cancer can refer to any cancer that starts in the eye. Cancer starts when cells begin to grow out of control. (To learn about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?)
The most common type of eye cancer is melanoma. But there are other types of cancer that affect different kinds of cells in the eye.
The eye has 3 major parts:
Different types of cancer start in each of these areas.
Cancers that are within the eye itself are called intraocular cancers:
In adults, the most common primary intraocular cancers are:
In children, the most common primary intraocular cancers are:
These childhood cancers are discussed in Retinoblastoma.
Secondary intraocular cancers (cancers that start somewhere else in the body and then spread to the eye) are not truly “eye cancers,” but they are actually more common than primary intraocular cancers. The most common cancers that spread to the eye are breast and lung cancers. Most often these cancers spread to the part of the eyeball called the uvea.
Intraocular melanoma is the most common type of cancer that develops within the eyeball in adults, but it is still fairly rare. Melanomas that start in the skin are much more common than melanomas that start in the eye. Melanomas develop from pigment-making cells called melanocytes. When melanoma develops in the eye, it is usually in the uvea (uveal melanoma) and rarely in the conjunctiva (conjunctival melanoma).
The uvea is the middle layer of the eyeball. It has 3 main parts:
About 9 out of 10 intraocular melanomas develop in the choroid or ciliary body. Choroid cells make the same kind of pigment as melanocytes in the skin, so it’s not surprising that these cells sometimes form melanomas.
Most of the other intraocular melanomas start in the iris. These are the easiest for a person (or their doctor) to see because they often start in a dark spot on the iris that has been present for many years and then begins to grow. These melanomas usually are slow growing, and they rarely spread to other parts of the body. For these reasons, people with iris melanomas generally have a good prognosis (outlook).
Uveal melanomas can spread through the blood, most often to the liver.
The conjunctiva is a thin clear covering over the sclera. (The sclera is the tough, white covering over most of the outside of the eyeball. In the front of the eye it is continuous with the cornea, which is clear to let light through.)
Conjunctival melanomas are extremely rare. They tend to be more aggressive and grow into nearby structures. Because they can spread through the blood and the lymph system, they can also spread to distant organs like the lungs, liver, or brain, where the cancer can become life-threatening.
The orbit consists of the tissues surrounding the eyeball. These include muscles that move the eyeball in different directions and the nerves attached to the eye. Cancers of these tissues are called orbital cancers.
Adnexal (accessory) structures include the eyelids and tear glands. Cancers that develop in these tissues are called adnexal cancers.
Cancers of the orbit and adnexa develop from tissues such as muscle, nerve, and skin around the eyeball and are like cancers in other parts of the body. For example:
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Finger PT. Chapter 116: Intraocular melanoma. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015.
Harbour JW, Shih HA. Initial management of uveal and conjunctival melanomas. Initial management of uveal and conjunctival melanomas. UpToDate website. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/initial-management-of-uveal-and-conjunctival-melanomas. Updated Aug. 3, 2018. Accessed August 15, 2018.
Karcioglu ZA, Haik BG. Chapter 67: Eye, orbit, and adnexal structures. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Dorshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa. Elsevier: 2014
Kaštelan S, Gverović Antunica A, Beketić Orešković L, Salopek Rabatić J, Kasun B, Bakija I. Conjunctival Melanoma - Epidemiological Trends and Features. Pathol Oncol Res. 2018 May 25. doi: 10.1007/s12253-018-0419-3. [Epub ahead of print]
National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Intraocular (Uveal) Melanoma Treatment. 2018. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/eye/hp/intraocular-melanoma-treatment-pdq#link/_101_toc. Accessed August 24, 2018.
Last Revised: March 2, 2023
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