YNHH | HealthLINK Cancer | September 2010


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YNHH | HealthLINK Cancer | September 2010
September 2010

Understanding eye cancer

While uncommon, cancers of the eye may be serious, life-threatening conditions. It can affect the outer parts of the eye, such as the eyelid, which are made up of muscles, skin and nerves. If the cancer starts inside the eyeball it's called intraocular cancer. When people speak of eye cancer, they are usually referring to ocular melanoma, the most common type of eye cancer that affects adults. Eye cancer can occur in children too. It is most common in the form of the disease called retinoblastoma, which starts in the cells of the retina.

About the writer

Miguel A. Materin, MD is the director of ophthalmic oncology at Yale-New Haven Hospital and treats eye tumors in both adults and children.

Eye cancer is a general term used to describe many types of cancer that can develop in the eye. However, cancer can also spread to the eye from other parts of the body. The two most common cancers that spread to the eye from another organ are breast cancer and lung cancer. Other less common sites of origin include the prostate, kidney, thyroid, skin, colon and blood or bone marrow.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of eye cancer vary based on the type of cancer. Signs of adult eye cancer can be very different from the cancer that affects the eyes of children. In adults, symptoms may include:

  • blurred vision in one eye
  • bulging eye
  • change in iris color or dark spot on iris
  • floaters (small "floating" spots in vision field)
  • loss of peripheral vision
  • red and/or painful eye

In the early stages of most eye cancers that affect adults, there usually are no symptoms a person would notice on his or her own. Early signs are often discovered by an optometrist or ophthalmologist during a routine eye exam.

Affecting 300 children in the United States each year, the most common eye cancer in children is retinoblastoma (RB). It is usually diagnosed in children age two and under, but can occur in older children as well. Symptoms of restinoblastoma include:

  • a white pupil (leukocoria)
  • different colored pupil in each eye
  • eye pain due to development of glaucoma
  • misaligned eyes, or "cross eyes" (strabismus)

Many parents find a white spot or a bright white pupil in photographs of their children. One eye may react normally to the flash, creating a "red eye," while the other might show a bright white pupil. Other variations, including a "cat's eye" appearance, may also be seen. If such an occurrence is noticed, parents should get a referral to an ophthalmologist from their pediatrician for further evaluation. Photographs are very good clues as they can help save the eyes, vision and lives of children.


The treatment of eye cancers is generally a multidisciplinary approach. Yale-New Haven Hospital's ophthalmic oncology physicians work closely with leading experts in radiation oncology, pathology, medical oncology, pediatric oncology, lymphoma and leukemia, neurosurgery and other fields to provide state-of-the-art, comprehensive care for eye tumor patients. Treatment for eye cancer varies by the type and by how advanced it is. It may include surgery, radiation therapy, freezing or heat therapy, or laser therapy.

The highly trained ophthalmologists at Yale-New Haven Hospital specialize in the diagnosis and management of a variety of eye tumors and cancers, many of which are serious life-threatening conditions. Through careful examination, clinical research and the use of leading-edge treatments, our physicians aim to improve the prognosis of these conditions and conserve the eye and sight of each patient. Learn more about ocular oncology services at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

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