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What are the Symptoms of Eye Cancer?

By Debra Durkee
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Identifying eye cancer can be difficult since many if not most of the symptoms are also associated with other less serious conditions, but the main things to watch for usually include persistent vision problems and changes in eye position or appearance. Eye cancer can be a little bit unique among cancers in that victims don’t usually feel much pain. Growths that start in the soft tissues here usually put pressure on the ocular nerve and brain, but since there aren’t a lot of nerve endings in these places people don’t hurt they way they would if all of this was happening somewhere else. The earlier eye cancers are caught and treated the better the prognosis, which means that people who feel unusual pressures or problems in their eyes are usually wise to get them evaluated by a specialist before too much time passes.

Eye Cancer Basics

Eye cancer, also known as eye melanoma or ocular melanoma, develops when there is an error in the DNA of a healthy eye. DNA is basically the genetic code that tells cells how to reproduce. These errors instruct the mutated cells to continue to grow; the cells then accumulate in the eye and symptoms begin to develop. Most commonly, the cancer is found in the vascular layer of the eye near the retina, but can also develop in the outer layer in the front of the eye.

All types of cancers in the eye are exceedingly rare. While symptoms can point people in the right direction, it’s more likely that they’re indicating some other problem entirely. It is of course still a good idea to get any persistent problems evaluated, but it’s usually unnecessary for people to assume the worst without a formal evaluation first.

Vision Problems

Blurred vision is one of the first things that many cancer patients say they noticed. Blurring can happen consistently or it can come and go, often at random intervals. There are a number of reasons for vision problems, and eye cancer is only one of them. In addition, floaters, or spots drifting across the field of vision, and sensations of flashing light can occur without changes in a person's clarity of vision. Temporary or permanent loss of sight, either complete or in a certain area within the field of vision, can be another of the early symptoms of eye cancer.

Change in Eye Position or Appearance

There can also be a noticeable physical change in the eye, including changing size in the pupil, bulges, or a change in the way the eye sits or moves. Tumors usually grow on the underside of the eyeball and aren’t usually visible, but depending on how big they are they can and often alter the way the eye appears in the socket. Dark spots on the surface of the eye are another related symptom.

Thinking About Pain

Pain is one of the most common things most cancer patients experience that indicates something is wrong within the body. However, there is almost never pain associated with symptoms of eye cancer. People often feel pressure, but not usually any sort of actual pain. When it is present, the cancer has usually already spread to a large area outside of the eye itself.

Putting Symptoms in Context

It is very important for people to understand that most of the symptoms listed here are much more commonly caused by other, usually less serious, conditions. Blurred vision and floaters can simply be a part of the natural aging process, for instance, and changes in eye appearance are usually due to non-cancerous growths and other temporary ills. Just the same, it is never a bad idea to have any changes in vision checked by a healthcare professional. In the rare case that a patient does present with eye cancer, the earlier the diagnosis the more likely it is that the condition will be cured.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Diagnosis often begins simply with an eye exam. In some cases, eye cancer can be detected with hand-held instruments and other microscopes designed to look into the eye. Experts who suspect cancer may be present usually try to biopsy some of the cells from the eye, which is a testing process that looks at their molecular level to see their growth pattern.

In the event of a positive diagnosis, treatment usually begins as it would for any other form of cancer. Growths that are isolated and contained are often removed surgically, and those that have spread are frequently attacked with radiation and chemotherapy. How early the cancer was caught can be decisive in the prognosis. In the more advanced stages of the disease, it’s not uncommon for eye cancer victims to lose their sight entirely in one or both eyes.

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Discussion Comments

By MagicRunner — On Oct 18, 2014

Thankfully cancers of the eye are rare. The American Cancer Society estimated about 2730 new cases for the year 2014. The survival rate for those with eye cancer is about 3 out of 4 people surviving for at least 5 years. Of course, as with all cancers, this depends upon the stage in which the cancer is discovered. Early-stage cancer patients fare much better than those who discover their cancer in a later stage.

Some of the treatments are similar those used when battling other types of cancers—surgery, radiation, freezing or heat therapy. Many times the cancer of the eyes has originated in another part of the body. For example, 9 out of 10 melanomas start with skin cancer, just as most lymphomas begin in the lymph nodes.

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