An Overview of Eye Tumors

People may not show visible symptoms

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Eye tumors are also called ocular tumors. A tumor is a collection of cells that grows abnormally. It can be cancerous or noncancerous. In medical language, cancerous tumors are called malignant. Tumors that are not cancer are called benign.

This article will go over the different types of eye tumors. It will also discuss eye tumor symptoms, how eye tumors are diagnosed, and how they are treated.

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ocular melanoma

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Where Eye Tumors Appear

The most common type of eye tumor is metastatic. This means it's a secondary eye tumor caused by cancer that has spread from one part of the body to another. For example, cancer may have started in the lung, breast, bowel, or prostate.

Ocular melanoma is the most common primary adult tumor that forms in the eye. However, it is still rare. This tumor is also called uveal melanoma or choroidal melanoma.

The tumor is made from cells in the eye that give them color. These are called pigmented cells. This type of tumor happens in the three main parts of the eye: the iris, the ciliary body, and the choroid. Together, these parts of the eye are called the uvea.

Most eye melanomas form in the choroid, This part of the eye is located between the retina and the sclera.

Less common types of primary intraocular tumors are intraocular lymphoma, retinoblastoma, and hemangioma. Rare cancers of the eye are conjunctival melanoma, eyelid carcinoma, and lacrimal gland tumors.

Recap

Tumors can appear in different parts of the eye. They can also show up on the skin around the eye. A lot of these tumors form because there is another type of cancer somewhere else in the body. When cancer spreads from where it started, it's called metastatic cancer.

Symptoms

Like skin moles, eye moles form when certain cells grow together in a group. At first, you may see an abnormal brown spot on or in your eye. It's called a nevus. These moles usually form on the choroid, iris, or conjunctiva of the eye.

An eye tumor may look like a dark spot on the colored part of your eye called the iris. If you notice a spot in your eye, tell your healthcare provider.

Since tumors in the eye usually have no symptoms, they are often found during routine eye examinations. Sometimes, a tumor in the eye may cause symptoms like blurry vision or shadows in the vision. These shadows are often called "floaters."

Recap

Most eye tumors do not have symptoms. Sometimes, people will have changes in their vision. If you have a spot on or close to your eye that is getting bigger changing shape or color, tell your doctor.

Non-Cancerous Eye Tumors

If you've been diagnosed with an eye tumor, cancer may be your first concern. Not all eye tumors are cancerous, however.

A tumor that is not cancerous is called a benign tumor. Benign tumors can grow on the eyelid or within the wall of the eye. These are called choroidal nevi. They are pigmented lesions found inside the eye.

Benign eye tumors can also be caused by an abnormal growth of blood vessels in or around the eye. These are called hemangiomas.

Choroidal hemangioma is the most common type of noncancerous eye tumor. It can cause eye redness or vision changes.

Cancerous Eye Tumors

Malignant eye tumors are cancerous. There are several cancers that can affect the eyes.

Orbital cancers affect the tissues around the eyeball. This is called the orbit. The muscles that move the eyeball and the nerves attached to the eyeball can also be affected. The eyelids and tear glands can also be affected. Cancers that affect these structures are called adnexal cancers.

Malignant melanomas usually form from simple moles. That's why it's important to check moles often for changes. If you have a mole in or near your eye, have it examined regularly.

Not all cases of eye cancer cause symptoms. The possible symptoms of eye cancer include:

Detecting cancer early means you'll have more treatment options. That said, not all cancers of the eye can be found early. Some types of eye cancers cause noticeable symptoms, but others do not.

Eye melanomas are often found during routine exams. That's why having regular eye exams is important. If your healthcare provider thinks you are at higher risk for eye melanoma, they might recommend that you have an eye exam every year.

Causes

Eye tumors can have different causes. The causes of eye tumors that are not cancerous are different from those that are cancer.

Benign Eye Tumors

A benign tumor of the eye does not spread to other parts of the body. It is not cancer. There are several types of benign eye growths. Here are a few examples of eye growths that are not cancerous.

  • Eye tumors can be in the skin around the eye and the eyelid. Benign tumors and growths on the skin around the eye, eyelid, and the conjunctiva are commonly caused by exposure to wind and ultraviolet rays from the sun.
  • Eye tumors may show up on the clear tissue that covers the white part of the eye. The white part is called the sclera. The clear part on top of it is called the conjunctiva.
  • Some tumors are inside the eyeball. They are harder to see.
  • Growths in the eye that show up suddenly are usually caused by infections and inflammation. Some might be caused by a virus.
  • Eye changes from aging can also cause eye growths to show up. Large pigmented lesions or moles can be genetic. They can also be related to a medical condition.
  • A freckle or growth in the eye can be a benign choroidal nevus. It could also be congenital hypertrophy of the retinal pigment epithelial layer (CHRPE). These growths are a bunch of pigmented cells that look dark. Most are benign. However, there is a small chance that a choroidal nevus can become cancerous. Having one or two CHRPE lesions is usually not concerning. However, having multiple CHRPE lesions has been linked to a higher risk of getting colon cancer.

Malignant Eye Tumors

Cancer happens when there are changes to DNA inside cells. These changes are called mutations. The DNA in a cell has a set of instructions that tell the cell what functions to perform. It also tells it how to grow and divide. If there are errors in the instructions, the cell may not function right. If this happens, the cell can become cancerous.

Several factors contribute to genetic mutations. These include inherited gene mutations and gene mutations that happen after birth. You might be born with a genetic mutation. Some mutations are passed down through families. This is called inheritance. An inherited mutation only causes a small number of eye cancers.

Most gene mutations occur after you're born. Many things can cause gene mutations. These factors can be things like smoking, radiation exposure, viruses, carcinogens, obesity, hormones, chronic inflammation, and lack of exercise.

Eye Cancer Risk Factors

  • Age
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Medical history
  • Family history

Age and Race

Primary intraocular melanoma usually happens to people over the age of 50. The average age that a person is diagnosed is 55. This type of eye cancer is rare in children and people older than 70.

Primary intraocular melanoma is more common in white people than Black people. Men and women are equally affected by this type of eye cancer.

Medical History

Basal cell carcinoma, squamous carcinoma, sebaceous carcinoma, and malignant melanoma are all types of eyelid cancers. There are several factors that make a person more likely to get intraocular melanoma, including:

  • Having extra pigmentation of the eye or skin around the eye
  • Having spots like moles in the eye
  • Having multiple flat moles that are irregular in shape or color

Family History

Intraocular melanoma can run in families. It usually happens because of a gene mutation. Sunlight or certain chemicals may increase your risk of intraocular melanoma.

Eye tumors in children are uncommon, but a rare type of cancer called retinoblastoma can affect children under the age of five. It is caused by a genetic mutation. It starts in the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. This part is called the retina. The retinal nerve cells begin to grow and multiply. They usually spread into the eye and possibly to other parts of the body.

If caught early, these childhood eye tumors may be curable. In fact, 9 out of 10 children with retinoblastoma will be cancer free five years after treatment.

If you have risk factors associated with cancer of the eye, you should see a doctor who is an expert in eye health every year for an exam. These doctors are called ophthalmologists. You should also tell them if you ever see an unusual mole or skin growth around your eye. It's also important to protect your eyes from ultraviolet (UV) radiation by wearing sunglasses.

Recap

Some eye tumors are not cancer. They are called benign tumors. If an eye tumor is cancerous, it's called a malignant tumor. There are certain things that increase your risk for eye cancer, like your age, race, and family history.

Diagnosis

An ophthalmologist can usually tell the difference between tumors that are cancer and those that are not. Another eye doctor, called an optometrist, might also spot an eye tumor.

If the growth is on your skin, you might also work with a doctor who is a skin health expert. They are called dermatologists.

If your provider is concerned about a growth near your eye, they might cut a small piece off to send to a lab to be looked at more closely. This is called excision.

An expert called a pathologist can look at the sample of your skin and tell if it has cancer. They will send a report to your provider explaining what they find.

Eye doctors can also take a digital picture of the growth in your eye. This allows them to watch it closely to see if it changes over time.

Recap

Doctors who are experts in eye health can use different tests and tools to look at eye tumors. They can figure out if the growth is cancer or not. Other doctors, like pathologists, can also help look at the tumor to decide if it's cancer or not.

Sometimes, eye doctors will do an ultrasound of the tumor. This can help them tell certain things about the growth, like how solid it is. This information can help them tell whether a growth might be cancer or not.

Benign growths inside the eye usually have easy-to-see edges called margins. They are typically flat or slightly raised. Malignant growths tend to have irregular shapes and color changes. They may also have fluid on top of them.

Your healthcare provider can use different tests and tools to check you for eye cancer. Here are a few tests your doctor might want to do.

  • Eye exam: Your practitioner will look closely at your eyes. They will look at the outside and the inside of both eyes. They will look for specific things. For example, having larger than normal blood vessels on the outside of your eye is usually a sign of a tumor inside your eye. Your healthcare provider can also look deep inside your eye using a tool called a binocular indirect ophthalmoscope (BIO). This instrument uses lenses and a bright light to see inside the eye. A slit-lamp can also be used to look at the structures in your eye.
  • Eye ultrasound: An eye ultrasound produces images of the inside of your eye. The ultrasound wand is placed on your closed eyelid or near the front surface of your eye.
  • Optical coherence tomography (OCT): OCT is an imaging test that creates pictures of the inside of your eye.
  • Fluorescein angiography: For this procedure, a dye called fluorescein is injected into your arm. The dye "lights up" structure as it is moving through your body into the blood vessels in the back of your eye. This makes it easier for your provider to take pictures of your eye.
  • Fine needle biopsy: During this procedure, your provider will take tumor cells out of your eye using a needle. The cells will then be looked at under a microscope. This procedure is not usually needed; in most cases, eye melanoma can be diagnosed without a biopsy.
  • Other imaging tests: If you are diagnosed with eye cancer, your provider might need to do imaging tests on the rest of your body to see if the eye cancer has spread anywhere else.

Recap

Doctors can use different tests to look at an eye tumor more closely. They may take pictures of your eye on the inside and outside. If you are diagnosed with eye cancer, you might need other imaging tests to look for tumors in other parts of your body.

Treatment

The treatment for eye tumors will depend on whether it is cancer or not.

Treating Benign Eye Tumors

Benign growths that are on the outside of the eye can be taken off surgically. Some can be removed with chemicals or burning (called cauterization).

If freckles and growths inside the eye are benign, they are usually left alone. However, you will need to have them examined every 6 to 12 months to make sure they don't change.

Eye Cancer

The goal of treating eye cancer is to make it less likely to spread. It's also important to maintain the health and vision of your eye, if possible.

The treatment options for eye cancer depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer; the possible side effects, and your overall health.

People with eye cancer are often treated by several doctors who use different treatments. This is called a multidisciplinary approach. Your treatment team will try to save your vision whenever possible.

The way eye cancer is treated will depend on the tumor and whether cancer has spread to other areas of the body. Here are a few things that might be part of a treatment plan for eye cancer:

  • Surgery. If you have a cancerous eye tumor, surgery may be necessary. During surgery, your ophthalmologist may take out parts of your eye. This will depend on how big the tumor is and whether it has spread.
  • Eye removal. In some cases, the only choice for treatment is to remove the eye. The loss of vision will affect your depth perception, but many people adjust to the vision changes.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy destroys cancer cells with high-powered energy beams. You will have a specific number of radiation treatments over a set time.
  • Laser therapy. Laser therapy uses lasers to shrink tumors. This treatment usually has fewer side effects than surgery or radiation therapy.

Recap

Some eye tumors can be taken off with surgery. If the growth is cancer, you might need to have treatments to kill the cancer cells. In some cases, you might have to have the eye removed.

Summary

Growths in or near the eye are not always cancer. The only way to know for sure is to have a doctor look at the tumor. If the growth is not cancer, your doctor might remove it. They might also leave it alone and just check it regularly to make sure it doesn't change.

If you are diagnosed with eye cancer, you will have different treatment options. You will probably work with more than one type of doctor to create a treatment plan. The treatments you have might affect your vision. However, your doctors will try to save your vision if they can.

A Word From Verywell

If you notice signs of an eye tumor on or near your eye, tell your healthcare provider. There are many different kinds of eye tumors. Some are not harmful and do not need treatment. However, others will need more testing because they could be cancer.

If you do have eye cancer, it can be treated. However, it's important that you get diagnosed as soon as possible.

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11 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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