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What Causes Eye Cancer?

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The exact cause of most eye cancers is not known. But scientists have found that the disease is linked with some other conditions, which are described in Risk Factors for Eye Cancer. A great deal of research is being done to learn more about the causes.

Scientists are learning how certain changes in the DNA inside cells can cause the cells to become cancer. 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. But DNA can also influence our risk for developing certain diseases, such as some kinds of cancer.

Some genes control when our cells grow, divide into new cells, and die.

  • Genes that help cells grow, divide, or stay alive 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. For example, some people inherit a mutation (change) in the BAP1 tumor suppressor gene, which raises their risk of eye melanoma and some other cancers. When the BAP1 gene is mutated, it doesn’t work normally, which can allow cells with this change to grow out of control.

Most DNA changes linked to cancer are acquired during a person's life rather than inherited before birth. For example, about half of uveal eye melanomas have changes in either of 2 related oncogenes, GNA11 or GNAQ.

Scientists are studying these and other DNA changes to learn more about them and how they might lead to eye cancer. But it is still not exactly clear what causes these changes to occur in some people and not others.

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.

Doherty RE, Alfawaz M, et al. Genetics of Uveal Melanoma. In Scott JF, Gerstenblith MR, eds. Noncutaneous Melanoma [Internet]. Brisbane (AU): Codon Publications; 2018 Mar. Available from: doi: 10.15586/codon.noncutaneousmelanoma.2018. 

Masoomian B, Shields JA, Shields CL. Overview of BAP1 cancer predisposition syndrome and the relationship to uveal melanoma. Journal of Current Ophthalmology. 2018;30(2):102-109. doi:10.1016/j.joco.2018.02.005.

Last Revised: November 30, 2018

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