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Melanoma develops in the cells that produce melanin — the pigment that gives your skin its color. Your eyes also have melanin-producing cells and can develop melanoma. Eye melanoma is also called ocular melanoma. Melanoma that originates in your eye is termed a primary eye cancer. Eye melanoma is the most common type of primary eye cancer in adults, but it's rare. If the melanoma begins elsewhere, such as your lung or breast, and then spreads to your eye, it's called a secondary eye cancer. Treatment is available for eye melanoma, and the earlier it's detected, the better your chance for successful treatment. Getting regular eye exams can help your doctor detect eye melanoma at an earlier stage.

Alternative Names of Eye Cancer are: Eye Melanoma.

Causes of Eye Cancer

  • The exact cause of eye melanoma, also called ocular melanoma, isn't known. Scientists believe that DNA plays a role in causing cells to become cancerous. DNA instructs the behavior of cells, so defects (mutations) in DNA can cause cells to malfunction, sometimes resulting in cancer. Sometimes these mutations are inherited, but they may also be acquired during life.
  • Although researchers have found an association with eye cancer and certain genetic changes, they haven't yet pinpointed why these changes occur, or even if these changes definitively cause cancer.
  • Eye melanoma most commonly develops in the uvea, the vascular layer of your eye sandwiched between the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back inner wall of your eyeball, and the white of your eye (sclera). Eye melanoma can occur in the front part of the uvea (iris and ciliary body) or in the back part of the uvea (choroid layer).

Signs & Symptoms of Eye Cancer

You may experience no symptoms at all for melanoma of the eye. On the other hand, eye melanomas may cause light flashes, blurring or a dark spot in your vision.

Signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • A growing dark spot on the iris
  • A sensation of flashing lights
  • Poor or blurry vision in one eye
  • Loss of side (peripheral) vision in the affected eye
  • Floaters — spots or squiggles drifting in your field of vision
  • A displacement of your eye within the eye socket

Diagnosis of Eye Cancer

Having a regular examination of your eyes by a physician eye specialist (ophthalmologist) is the first and most important step in early detection and diagnosis of eye melanoma. Your doctor will examine the outside of your eye, looking for enlarged blood vessels that can indicate a tumor inside your eye. Then, with the help of instruments, your doctor will look inside your eye. One method, called ophthalmoscopy, uses lenses and a bright light mounted on your doctor's forehead — a bit like a miner's lamp. Another method, called slit-lamp biomicroscopy, uses a microscope that produces an intense beam or line of light to illuminate the interior of your eye. In most cases, looking inside your eye alone will be enough to detect and diagnose any tumors or other abnormalities.

Further evaluation of suspected melanoma

If your doctor suspects you may have eye melanoma; you may undergo one of a number of imaging tests:

  • Ultrasound. This painless procedure uses high-frequency sound waves from a hand-held, wand-like apparatus called a transducer, which can produce precise images of structures within your body. It's an important test for diagnosing and evaluating eye tumors. Eye melanomas often have a characteristic appearance on the ultrasound. Your doctor also uses ultrasound to measure the thickness of the tumor to help determine the most appropriate treatment. The initial ultrasound further provides a baseline measurement for comparison as you go through your treatment plan. In this test you sit in a chair in your doctor's office. The transducer is placed against either your eyelid or the front surface of your eye, in which case your eye is numbed with anesthetizing drops. A lubricant placed on the transducer may run down your cheek, but the procedure itself doesn't cause discomfort or pain. There may be some discomfort after the procedure has been completed if the surface of the cornea becomes scratched during the test, but this usually gets better within hours.
  • Angiography. Angiography is a process that uses dyes to help your doctor better visualize parts of your body. In a procedure called fluorescein angiography, your doctor injects a yellow dye into a vein in your arm. The dye circulates in your eyes, highlighting the blood vessels in your retina and providing information about the characteristics of the tumor. A camera with special filters takes flash pictures every few seconds for several minutes, providing your doctor with useful images. Another procedure called indocyanine green angiography involves injecting a green dye. Again, using special filters, your doctor can obtain useful images that may help define the characteristics of a tumor.

Treatments of Eye Cancer

After eye melanoma is diagnosed, you and your doctor will review your treatment options. Factors to be considered are the location and size of the melanoma, as well as your overall physical health. Some doctors may also consider the genetics of the tumor (cytogenetics) when deciding on the best treatment course. However, this is a topic currently being debated in the medical community and some experts feel that more studies are needed to determine the best type of profiling for predicting tumor behavior and outcomes. Melanomas of the eye are rare, so it's a good idea to find a doctor with experience in treating these cancers. In addition, a second opinion can provide more information and help you feel more confident about your treatment plan. Sometimes, doctors suggest observing a small lesion rather than treating it right away. But your doctor will generally recommend treatment for a medium-sized or large-sized melanoma. Treatment designed to destroy a melanoma often will cause some loss of vision, even though every effort is made to preserve vision. But because cancers of the eye can be fatal, in some cases you'll need treatment even if it means loss of vision or loss of your eye. Surgery is the foundation for most eye cancer treatments. If an eye melanoma is of a certain size and in a favorable location, treatment can sometimes be accomplished with surgery alone. Treatment for other eye melanomas may be done with radiation alone, or radiation combined with a therapy such as infrared laser.


Depending on the characteristics of the tumor, your doctor may choose from a variety of surgical procedures to remove the melanoma:

  • Iridectomy. This procedure removes only a part of the iris. It's used for small iris melanomas that have not invaded other structures of your eye.
  • Iridotrabeculectomy. This procedure removes parts of the iris and the supporting tissues around the cornea at the base of the iris for small iris melanomas that have invaded those tissues.
  • Iridocyclectomy. This is another treatment for small melanomas of the iris and ciliary body. It involves removing part of the iris and the ciliary body.
  • Choroidectomy. Part of the choroid is removed during this surgery, with or without removing part of the wall of the eye (sclerouvectomy). This complicated procedure may be followed by supplementary radiation.
  • Enucleation. This surgery removes the entire eye. This procedure is used for large eye tumors when alternative treatments would destroy most of the eye anyway. It may also be used if the tumor is causing eye pain. An implant is inserted into the position where the eye was previously located, and the muscles controlling movement of the eye are attached to it, which will allow the implant to move. After your eye has had some time to heal, an artificial eye (prosthesis) is made. The front surface of your new eye will be custom painted to match your existing eye, and the back surface will be custom molded so it fits comfortably. Motion from the implant is transferred through the healed tissue to the prosthetic eye, which in most cases provides a satisfactory cosmetic appearance. You can wear the prosthetic eye all the time and even sleep with it in place, but you'll have to remove it once or twice a year for polishing.

Radiation therapy

Carefully targeted and regulated doses of high-energy radiation — radiation therapy — can destroy ocular melanoma and be lifesaving. Radiation therapy damages cells by destroying the genetic material that controls how cells grow and divide. And although both healthy and cancerous cells are damaged by radiation, the goal of treatment is to hurt as few normal, healthy cells as possible. Doctors generally reserve radiation treatment for eye melanomas to medium-sized and large-sized melanomas, although selected small-sized melanomas may sometimes be treated with radiation. The radiation dose can be delivered with charged particles such as proton beams, which are generated from outside of your body and directed into your eye (teletherapy). Or, the radiation can come from small radioactive seeds that are temporarily anchored to your eye (brachytherapy). In brachytherapy, a small implant (plaque) similar to a bottle cap and containing several radioactive seeds (usually iodine 125 seeds) is sutured to the wall of your eye at a site overlying the tumor. The plaque remains in place for four to five days until it has delivered an optimal amount of radiation for the characteristics of your tumor.  The device is then removed, and your doctor will monitor the tumor at regular intervals to watch for tumor shrinkage.

Small eye melanomas

There has been a recent trend toward treating small eye melanomas with either radiation therapy or transpupillary thermotherapy (TTT) — a type of infrared laser therapy — or both. Destroying the cancerous tissue by freezing it (cryotherapy) also has been used for some small eye melanomas.

Prevention of Eye Cancer

While no direct link has been established between sun exposure and eye melanoma, an association has been found. Because of this, some doctors recommend regular use of UV-blocking sunglasses as a possible preventive measure.

When to seek Medical Advice

  • Some types of eye melanomas can be detected only by an eye doctor, so it's a good idea to have regular, routine eye examinations. Because this type of cancer is rare, there's no screening test other than an eye examination.
  • If you observe a dark spot on your iris that is enlarging, have a doctor examine it. Many doctors believe that skin and eye melanomas start from a mole (nevus). If you have a nevus or a freckle in your eye, have it checked regularly by an eye doctor.

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