Several different cancers can cause tumors of the eye. Knowing the basic eye tumor symptoms is important since survival rates for many different types of eye cancer are positive with early diagnosis and treatment.

Eye tumors may begin in or around the eye. The tumor may look like a large growth, a tiny dot, or anything in between. Some tumors resemble very small changes in the eye, and a person may not notice them if they do not look closely.

Sometimes eye tumors may not always cause symptoms unless the cancer progresses or affects a certain part of the eye.

Certain eye tumors, including squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, can spread to other body areas. Melanoma is especially dangerous, but all eye cancers warrant early treatment.

Read on to learn about symptoms for the more common eye tumors and what to do if someone notices them.

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Melanoma is a type of skin cancer.

Melanoma in the eye has a high risk of metastasizing — which refers to spreading — and it does in around 50% of cases. In some, metastatic eye tumors are fatal.

Symptoms of choroidal melanoma

Choroidal melanoma is the most common type of eye cancer in adults. It affects the tissue that covers the middle layer of the eye.

It can also affect the eye’s ciliary body, which sits under its lens.

Choroidal melanoma symptoms vary but may include:

  • detached retina if the cancer grows large enough
  • a dark growth in the eye that may only be visible as a shadow at the back of the eye
  • vision changes, such as blurred vision or lights flashing
  • eye floaters, or specks that move around in someone’s field of vision
  • pressure in the eye
  • pain, but this is rare

Sometimes it may not lead to symptoms.

As with other types of melanoma, frequent sun exposure or exposure to tanning beds is a major risk factor.

Symptoms of conjunctival melanoma

The conjunctiva is the outer tissue that covers the eye. Conjunctival melanoma is a type of skin cancer that is very rare.

Conjunctival melanoma can cause the following symptoms:

  • elevated, dark growths in the eye that may look like small moles or freckles
  • vision changes, such as vision loss, flashing lights, or blurred vision
  • a spot on the eye that grows or changes

People with light skin and blue eyes are more vulnerable to conjunctival and choroidal melanoma.

This is the most common childhood cancer that occurs within the eyeball. Retinoblastoma starts at the back of the eye. About 1 in 3 cases are present at birth. Typically, survival rates are very positive, at around 95%, with specialized care.

Retinoblastoma begins early in development when retinoblasts — the cells that fill the retina — malfunction and grow out of control. The tumor may be in only one eye in children who have the noninheritable form. It can also develop in both eyes in children with the genetically inheritable form.

Symptoms appear early in life or at birth and may include:

  • a pupil that looks white when light shines into it instead of red or pink
  • white flashes — a white reflex — in the eye in photos
  • strabismus, or “lazy eye
  • less commonly, eye pain, vision issues, a bulging eye, or differences in color between the two irises — the colored portion — of the eyes

Squamous cell cancer is a type of skin cancer that affects the middle and outer layers of the skin. It is the most common type of cancer affecting the eye’s conjunctiva.

Squamous cell carcinoma growths are often light, making them more difficult to notice. Some symptoms to look for include:

  • sensitivity to light
  • red-eye in just one eye
  • eye irritation
  • the sensation that something is in the eye
  • a light or white-colored growth on the eye that is painless but growing

Diagnosing eye tumors requires a doctor to rule out other problems that may be causing symptoms before confirming the presence of a tumor. Often, infection or injury to the eye can lead to similar symptoms as an eye tumor would.

The diagnostic process requires several exams. A doctor will likely do the following:

  • take a complete medical and family history, and ask about symptoms, when they appeared, and their severity
  • examine the eye, likely through pupil reflex tests, during which the doctor might dilate the eye to look inside and take photos of the outside or inside of the eye
  • perform blood tests to look for genetic markers of retinoblastoma and to rule out other causes of the symptoms, such as infections
  • use imaging scans, such as MRIs, ultrasounds, and CT scans, to check the back of the eye

In some cases, a doctor may recommend examining the eye under anesthesia so that a more detailed exam is possible without causing pain.

A doctor may also need to perform a biopsy. This also involves numbing the eye with local anesthesia or using general anesthesia to put a person to sleep. The procedure uses a needle to take a small sample of the eye tumor, which the doctor sends to a lab. The analysis of the tumor may reveal the type of cancer a person has and guide treatment.

It is impossible for a person to self-diagnose or rule out cancer according to their symptoms. Therefore, they need to consult a doctor if they notice:

  • eye health problems, such as pain or a change in the eye that do not go away after a few weeks
  • unusual growths in the eye
  • changes in how the eye looks
  • new blood vessels in the eye
  • issues with their vision

A diagnosis of cancer may cause concern, but many different types of eye tumors are highly treatable, especially if a person detects them early.

It is important to speak with a doctor as soon as possible for any changes in the eye. This can protect the vision and reduce the risk of the cancer spreading.

Survival rates for retinoblastoma and squamous cell cancer are very positive. However, melanomas have a lower survival rate and a higher risk of spreading. Individuals can speak with a doctor to discuss treatment options and a person’s outlook.