Melanoma is a type of cancer that develops in cells that produce melanin. It is the pigment that gives your skin its color. Your eyes also have melanin-producing cells and can develop melanoma. Eye melanoma is also called ocular melanoma.
Most ocular melanomas form in the part of the eye that you cannot see when you look in the mirror. This makes ocular melanoma difficult to detect. Also, ocular melanoma does not usually cause early signs or symptoms.
There is a treatment for melanomas in the eye. Treatment for some small eye melanomas may not interfere with your vision. However, treatment of large ocular melanomas usually results in some loss of vision.
Symptoms of eye cancer
Ocular melanoma may not cause signs and symptoms. When they occur, signs and symptoms of melanoma of the eye may include:
– A sensation of flashes or specks of dust in the vision (floaters)
– growing dark spot on iris
– A change in the shape of the black circle (pupil) in the center of the eye
– Weak or blurred vision in one eye
– Loss of peripheral vision
When to consult a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. Sudden changes in your vision signal an emergency, so seek immediate care in these situations.
Causes of eye cancer
The cause of ocular melanoma is unclear. Doctors know that melanoma in the eye occurs when mistakes develop in the DNA of healthy cells in the eye. These DNA errors cause cells to grow and multiply out of control. So the mutated cells continue to live when they would normally die. The mutated cells accumulate in the eye and form ocular melanoma.
Where does eye melanoma occur?
Eye melanoma most often develops in the cells of the middle layer of the eye (uvea). The uvea consists of three parts, and each can be affected by melanoma in the eye:
– Iris, which is the colored part at the front of the eye
– The choroid layer, which is made up of blood vessels and connective tissue between the sclera and the retina at the back of the uvea
– The ciliary body, which is located in front of the uvea and which secretes the transparent fluid (aqueous fluid) in the eye.
– Eye melanoma can also occur in the outermost layer of the front of the eye (conjunctiva), in the cavity around the eyeball and on the eyelid. Although these types of eye melanoma are very rare.
Risk factors for the development of eye cancer
Risk factors for primary melanoma of the eye include
Light eye color
People with blue or green eyes have a higher risk of eye melanoma.
White people have a higher risk of eye melanoma than people of other colors
The risk of eye melanoma increases with age.
Certain hereditary skin diseases
A condition called dysplastic nevus syndrome, which causes abnormal moles, can increase the risk of developing melanoma on the skin and in the eye.
In addition, people with abnormal pigmentation of the skin of the eyelids and adjacent tissues and increased pigmentation of the uvea, known as ocular melanocytosis, also have an increased risk of developing melanoma of the eye.
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays
The role of ultraviolet exposure in ocular melanoma is unclear. There is some evidence that UV exposure, such as sunlight or tanning beds, may increase the risk of ocular melanoma.
Certain genetic mutations
Certain genes passed from parents to children can increase the risk of eye melanoma.
Complications of eye cancer
Complications of ocular melanoma can include:
Increased pressure inside the eye (glaucoma).
Growing ocular melanoma can cause glaucoma. Signs and symptoms of glaucoma may include eye pain and redness, as well as blurred vision.
Large ocular melanomas often cause vision loss in the affected eye and can cause complications, such as retinal detachment, which also causes vision loss.
Small eye melanomas can cause some vision loss if they occur in critical parts of the eye. You may have difficulty seeing in the center or to the side of your vision. Very advanced ocular melanomas can lead to complete loss of vision.
Ocular melanoma that spreads beyond the eye. Ocular melanoma can spread outside the eye and into distant areas of the body, including the liver, lungs and bones.
Uveal melanoma. Fort Washington, Pa.: National Comprehensive Cancer Network. .
Bowling B. Ocular tumors. In: Kanski’s Clinical Ophthalmology: A Systematic Approach. 8th ed. Edinburgh, UK: Elsevier, Ltd.; 2016.
Harbor JW, et al. Initial treatment of uveal and conjunctival melanomas. Accessed July 8, 2018.
Intraocular (uveal) melanoma symptoms, tests, prognosis and stages (PDQ). National Cancer Institute.