Cancer is a popular topic these days, but we’d like to turn the spotlight on a lesser known cancer—primary intraocular cancer, or eye cancer. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, this type of eye cancer could affect an estimated 2,810 US citizens this year. That number is low compared to the estimated 249,000 cases of breast cancer expected in 2016, but like all cancers, one key to a positive outcome is to catch it early. To do that, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the types of eye cancer, the symptoms it can cause, and the treatments available.

Types of eye cancer

Eye cancer falls into two separate categories based on the origin of the cancer. Cancers that begin elsewhere in the body, like the breast or lungs, and spread to the eyes are called secondary intraocular cancers.  This condition is actually more common than primary intraocular cancer which begins in the eye itself.  Simply put, it is rare for cancer to begin within the eye.

Among primary intraocular cancers, melanoma is the most common. It is very similar to a skin melanoma except that it usually begins in a middle layer of the eyeball called the uvea. Melanomas usually grow slowly giving you a better chance at discovering it early. Be sure to get your annual eye exam from your VSP doctor to increase the chances of detecting problems quickly.


So what symptoms are present if an intraocular melanoma has developed? This can be a tricky question because often there are no symptoms in the very early stages of eye cancer. However, the following conditions could indicate a problem related to cancer. Talk to your doctor immediately if you have:

  • a dark spot in your eye (especially the iris) that’s growing
  • flashes of light, or wiggly lines in your vision
  • blurred vision
  • a lump in your eye or on your eyelid that’s getting bigger
  • bulging of an eyeball
  • partial or total loss of vision


There are two main forms of treatment when primary or secondary intraocular cancers are detected.  Doctors often use radiotherapy by carefully aiming beams of radiation at the tumor to kill the cancerous cells. Alternately, surgery is an option to simply remove the tumor. Surgery is usually used with early detection of small tumors with no vision loss. Your medical care team will determine the treatment based on the size of the affected area, and the method that’s least destructive to eye tissue.

Although a diagnosis of eye cancer can be frightening, survival rates for intraocular melanoma are fairly good. According to the American Cancer Society, when an eye melanoma is confined to the eye and has not spread to other parts of the body, the 5+ year survival rate is 80%. Eye doctors are often the first to detect signs of diseases, including eye cancer, which may otherwise go unnoticed or untreated. Early detection through a VSP WellVision Exam® allows for earlier treatment that can prevent vision loss and other complications.


The content of this article is for general informational awareness purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult your eye care doctor or physician for actual advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This article is the work of the attributed author and does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of VSP. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.

Dr. Marjorie Knotts is owner and lead optometrist at Knotts Optometry in Indianapolis, IN.