Eye melanoma

Eye melanoma, also known as ocular melanoma, is the most common type of eye cancer but is still rare compared to cancer in other parts of the body.

Melanoma can occur in different parts of the eye, including the uvea (in the eyeball) and the conjunctiva, the eye's outer lining. Treatment can differ depending on which part of the eye is affected.

Eye melanoma doesn't always cause obvious symptoms, and it may be detected at a routine eye test. If you notice changes to your vision or the visual appearance of your eyes, talk to your GP or optician. Don't wait for your routine appointment, as the earlier eye cancer is diagnosed, the easier it can be to treat.

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Eye cancer symptoms

Often eye cancer doesn't cause noticeable symptoms. It may first be detected during an eye exam, which is just one reason why having regular eye exams is so important.

The most common sign of eye cancer is a change in vision. Symptoms can include:

  • Blurry vision
  • Seeing flashing lights
  • Shadows or floaters in your vision
  • Visible dark patches that appear in the eye
  • Loss of side vision (peripheral vision)

Many symptoms of eye cancer are also caused by other eye conditions that aren't cancer. It's always best to see your GP or optician if you notice changes to your vision or eyes.

Types of melanoma

What causes melanoma of the eye?

When healthy eye cells grow and multiply abnormally, mutated cells develop into a tumour. Melanoma usually occurs in the skin, but there are melanin pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) in the eye, which is why melanoma can develop there too.

Risk factors that can increase the chance of developing eye melanoma include:

  • Having light or red hair
  • Light-coloured eyes (blue, green or grey)
  • Fair skin that's prone to burning
  • Having atypical mole syndrome (also known as dysplastic naevus syndrome)
  • Age, older people are at greater risk
  • The BAP1 gene mutation, known as BAP1 cancer syndrome

A known risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet light rays, for example, through sunlight, tanning beds or other sources. The link between ultraviolet exposure and eye melanoma is less clear, though.

How to treat eye melanoma

Treatment for melanoma depends on the stage and grade of cancer. You may need some tests, such as a biopsy, to help your doctors recommend a treatment plan. Your ophthalmologist (eye doctor) and health care team will discuss the options with you.

Sometimes, doctors may choose to observe rather than treat a small tumour that isn't fast-growing. You will need long-term follow-up to monitor the tumour. If it grows or you get complications, your specialist may recommend treatment.

Large melanomas can lead to vision loss and potential complications such as retinal detachment. The extent of vision loss can depend on the size of the tumour.

It can feel scary to be facing sight loss, especially while dealing with cancer treatment and recovery. You don't have to cope on your own. We're here to support everyone living with sight loss to make the most of their vision. Find out about getting our support today.

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Medically reviewed by: The Royal College of Ophthalmologists on 28/07/2022

Edited by: Nick Astbury FRCS FRCOphth FRCP
Clinical Associate Professor

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists champions excellence in the practice of ophthalmology and is the only professional membership body for medically qualified ophthalmologists. The RCOphth is unable to offer direct advice to patients. If you’re concerned about the health of your eyes, you should seek medical advice from your GP, optometrist or ophthalmologist.

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