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Eye cancer can develop in one of two ways. If the tumour in the eye originates there, either inside the eye, or near the eye in the eyelid, for example, this is described as primary eye cancer. When someone has cancer that develops elsewhere in the body and it spreads to the eye, this is classed as secondary eye cancer. Secondary tumours in the eye are diagnosed most often in women who have had breast cancer and men with lung cancer.

Eye cancers that arise inside the eye

The following is a list of different eye cancers; the first three of which all develop inside the eyeball itself:

  • Eye melanoma is one of the most common types of primary eye cancer. It can develop from cells that line the eyelids, from the muscle cells that work to change the shape of the lens, in cells within the iris, or in cells that form the inner lining of the eyeball.
  • Retinoblastoma is a type of eye cancer that runs in families and is most commonly diagnosed in babies and young children. It is a retinal tumour and if diagnosed and treated promptly, the cure rate is around 90%.
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma can also affect children; this is a very rare tumour of the muscles in the eyeball that allow eye movements.
  • Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is a cancer of the blood, can result in eye tumours.
  • Optic nerve tumours can arise at the back of the eyeball or anywhere along the path of the optic nerve as it travels into the brain.

Eye cancers that affect the skin around the eye

The skin around the eye and the lower eyelid can give rise to basal cell carcinoma, which is the most commonly diagnosed skin cancer. The cancer is obvious, and tends not to spread easily, so it is often treated successfully. The eyelid can also develop squamous cell carcinoma, which is less common.

Treating eye cancers

Eye cancers that occur in the skin around the eye are usually treated by surgery to remove the tumour, taking a healthy margin of tissue around it. This can mean that a large amount of skin needs to be taken away, and plastic or reconstructive surgery may be necessary afterwards.

Eye melanoma is usually treated by lasers, which are focused onto the cancer cells through the pupil. You may also need to have follow-up radiotherapy treatment.

Very large tumours of the eye may need surgery to remove the entire eyeball, in which case a prosthetic eye can be fitted. These are extremely realistic and give a good cosmetic appearance, although they do not function.

Chemotherapy is usually used to treat eye cancers due to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and in some cases of retinoblastoma.

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