Signs and Symptoms of Eye Cancer

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Eye cancer is a general term used to describe the types of cancer that can develop on or within the eye. It is very rare. The American Cancer Society estimates less than 4,000 people per year will be diagnosed with eye cancer. This cancer is typically very treatable but must be addressed as soon as possible for the best outcomes.

When people speak of eye cancer, they are usually referencing ocular melanoma, the most common type of eye cancer found in adults. However, eye cancer can occur in children in the form of a disease called retinoblastoma.

Close up of woman's eyes
PhotoAlto / Odilon Dimier / Getty Images

Symptoms

In the early stages of eye cancer, there may be few, if any, symptoms. In fact, it is not unusual for an optometrist to be the first person to notice abnormalities that may signal cancer. The healthcare provider may find eye cancer during a routine eye exam.

Symptoms of eye cancer can vary from person to person based on the type of cancer involved. In adults, the most common symptoms include:

These symptoms do not always mean you have eye cancer. However, it is important to get the symptoms checked by a healthcare provider as soon as possible, since they may signal another health problem.

Symptoms of Retinoblastoma

The most common form of pediatric eye cancer is retinoblastoma, a disease that affects around 300 children in the United States every year. While it is predominately diagnosed in children two years of age and under, it can strike in other age groups, as well.

Symptoms of retinoblastoma include: 

  • A white pupil (leukocoria)
  • Misaligned or "cross eyes" (strabismus)
  • A different colored iris in each eye
  • Eye pain caused by the development of glaucoma (less common)

It is not uncommon for parents to first notice the condition when they see a photograph of their child. They might notice that one of the child’s eyes reacts normally to the flash (creating the typical "red-eye") while the other shows a bright white pupil (leukocoria). In some cases, the eye might have a "cat's eye" appearance or other perceptible abnormalities.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you are experiencing any changes in your eye and/or vision, contact your primary care doctor. You will likely be referred to an eye specialist called an ophthalmologist. Diagnosis is fairly simple, typically requiring a visual examination of the eye with an ophthalmoscope (a lighted medical instrument).

Meanwhile, if you have even the slightest suspicion your child has the symptoms of retinoblastoma, see your pediatrician immediately. Retinoblastoma is an especially aggressive form of childhood cancer. It is also one of the most treatable; more than 90% of children can be cured with treatment. Early detection and treatment are keys to avoiding any visual impairment or damage to the eye.

If you suspect an adult or child may have symptoms of eye cancer, do not shine a flashlight directly into the eye. Direct light can cause damage (particularly in children with still-developing retinas). Ophthalmoscopes are specifically calibrated to emit the appropriate amount of light for adults and children; flashlights are not.

Summary

Eye cancers are very rare. They can be very serious but are often treatable if caught early. Be sure to see a healthcare provider if you have any symptoms or changes to your eyes.

A Word from Verywell

Any kind of cancer is scary, but one that can affect your vision is especially concerning. Eye cancer can also occur in children who may not be able to describe or report changes in their vision. Retinoblastoma can have an inherited component, so be sure to tell your healthcare team if anyone in your family has this condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does cancer of the eye start?

    Cancer can happen when cell from the body grows too quickly and becomes a disorganized lump called a tumor. The majority of ocular melanomas are new (primary) cancers, but they can also be spread (metastasize) from melanoma of the skin. Retinoblastoma can occur as a spontaneous cancer mutation, or it may have an inherited (genetic) component.


  • What does an eye cancer lump look like?

    A tumor can form from any of the cells in or around the eye. You may experience eye-bulging, trouble moving the eyeball around, or may even see a lump on the eyelid. Any concerns should quickly be brought to the attention of your healthcare provider.

  • Can watery eyes be a symptom of eye cancer?

    Excessive watery eyes can sometimes be a symptom of eye cancer. Cancer may be in the tear ducts. See your healthcare provider for any concerning symptoms.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed
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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • American Academy of Ophthalmology. “Eye Cancer.”