Eye melanoma

Sharon Copeland Sharon Copeland
Tuesday, 24 May 2022 Share this blog: Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Copy link Copy Link

Eye melanoma is a type of cancer that affects your eyes. It can also be called conjunctiva, choroidal or intraocular (uveal) melanoma, depending on which part of the eye it affects. Melanomas develop from cells called melanocytes, which are the cells that give our skin and eyes their colour. Sometimes these malignant cancer cells form on the surface of the eye, but they can also be inside the eye. Melanoma can happen on other parts of the body, most commonly on the skin. Melanoma can affect either the tissue around the eye or the eye itself. Cancer can also spread to the eyes from other parts of the body.

eye melanoma

What are the first signs of eye cancer?

Eye cancer doesn’t always cause obvious symptoms; it may only be discovered through a routine eye test. Melanoma symptoms include:

  • Enlarged blood vessels
  • Vision loss
  • Eye bulging
  • Blurry vision
  • Floaters/flashes of light
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Dark spot in your eye that gets bigger
  • Shadows/flashes of light
  • Pain around the eye (note this can be rare)
  • Vision loss can be partial or total in eye

These symptoms may not necessarily be the result of eye melanoma, but they could be symptoms of other eye issues. If you present with any of these symptoms, you should visit your optician for a proper diagnosis and treatment if necessary.

What is the main cause of melanoma?

Eye melanoma occurs when the pigment-producing cells in the eyes divide and multiply too rapidly. This produces a lump of tissue known as a tumour.

It’s not entirely clear what causes eye melanoma; it occurs when healthy cells in the eyes start to multiply. Melanoma is usually caused by a combination of risk factors, one of the biggest being exposure to UV. The below factors can increase your risk of developing eye cancer.

  • Fair skin – the less pigment you have in your skin, the less protection you have from UV radiation which can cause melanoma
  • Sunburns
  • Prolonged sun exposure
  • Light eye colours like blue or green
  • Unusual moles
  • Use of sunbeds – there's some evidence to suggest that exposing yourself to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunbeds, for example, can increase your risk of eye melanoma

The risk of developing eye melanoma also increases with age, with most cases being diagnosed in people in their 50s.

eye melanoma surgery

How is melanoma diagnosed?

Your optician/GP will refer you to an ophthalmologist; if they decide you may have ocular melanoma, you will be referred to a specialist centre for eye cancer. Your doctor will perform an eye examination – to look at the structures of your eyes in more detail and check for abnormalities.

They may perform an ultrasound scan of your eye – a small probe placed over your closed eye uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the inside of your eye; this allows your doctor to find out more about the position of the tumour and its size. They may perform a biopsy - they’ll take a small tissue sample to a laboratory to test for cancerous cells.

A fluorescein angiogram is where photographs of the suspected cancer are taken using a special camera after dye has been injected into your bloodstream to highlight the tumour.

Occasionally, a thin needle may be used to remove a small sample of cells from the tumour (biopsy). The genetic information in these cells is analysed to give an indication of the chances of the cancer spreading or coming back.

What treatment options are there for eye melanoma?

If the tumour is small and there is still some vision in the eye, surgery can be done to remove the tumour.

Radiation therapy can be used as treatment; this involves applying external radiation to the tumour to kill the cancer cells.

Brachytherapy is another form of treatment that involves inserting radioactive plates lined with radioactive material called plaques into part of the eye and leaving it there to kill the cancer cells. The material is usually left inside the eye for a week.

If the tumour is especially large or if vision loss has occurred, it might be necessary to perform eye enucleation, which is removal of the eye. This is to ensure that the tumour is removed fully. If the eye is removed it will be replaced with an artificial eye which will match the colour of the other eye.

Can you prevent eye melanoma?

The best way you can prevent developing eye cancer is to always wear sunglasses with UV protection. All of the sunglasses sold at Feel Good Contacts protect against 100% of UVA and UVB rays, so you can enjoy the sun safe in the knowledge that you are protected. Wrap-around frames and oversized styles are some of the best sunglasses for protection because their larger surface area gives extra coverage around the eyes. We advise not to buy cheap sunglasses in the market or fake copies of branded sunglasses, as these often don’t provide full protection.

You can also wear wide brim hats when outside. Having regular eye tests is also an important part of keeping your eyes healthy. You optician will spot any issues with your eyes before they can develop into anything more severe. You should visit your optician at least every 2 years.

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