Cancerous tumours of the eye

A cancerous tumour of the eye can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. Cancerous tumours are also called malignant tumours. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body. Most cancers of the eye have spread there from another area of the body, such as the breast or the lung. This is called an eye metastasis. The following information describes cancer that starts in the eye (called primary eye cancer).

Melanoma of the eye

Like melanoma of the skin, melanoma of the eye develops from cells called melanocytes. Melanocytes make melanin, the substance that gives colour to the eyes, skin and hair. Melanoma of the eye can affect the:

  • eyeball – called intraocular melanoma
  • conjunctiva – called conjunctival melanoma
  • eyelid – a type of melanoma of the skin
  • eye socket (orbit) – called orbital melanoma

Intraocular melanoma

Intraocular melanoma is the most common type of eye cancer in adults and accounts for about 5% of all melanomas. Most intraocular melanomas start in the uvea and are called uveal melanoma. Uveal melanoma is divided into anterior uveal melanoma and posterior uveal melanoma. Anterior uveal melanoma affects the iris in the front (anterior) part of the eye. Posterior uveal melanoma affects structures behind the front part of the eye in either the choroid or the ciliary body. Most uveal melanomas start in the choroid so you may also hear the term choroidal melanoma.

The most common types of cells in intraocular melanoma are spindle cells and epithelioid cells. Spindle cells are long and flat and epithelioid cells are round. People with intraocular melanoma often have both types of cells.

Intraocular melanoma is treated differently than melanoma that affects other parts of the eye, such as the conjunctiva or eyelid.

Lymphoma of the eye

Lymphoma of the eye (also called ocular lymphoma) is the 2nd most common type of eye cancer. Lymphoma of the eye is most often a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that develops from lymphocytes. Lymphoma of the eye can affect the:

  • eyeball – called intraocular lymphoma
  • eye socket – called orbital lymphoma
  • eyelid
  • conjunctiva
  • tear (lacrimal) gland


Retinoblastoma is the most common eye cancer in children. Find out more about retinoblastoma.

Rare tumours of the eye

The following cancerous tumours of the eye are rare:

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the eye most often starts in the conjunctiva and the eyelid. SCC is the most common type of cancer of the conjunctiva. SCC of the eyelid is a type of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) of the eye usually starts in the eyelid and is the most common type of cancer of the eyelid. BCC of the eyelid is also a type of non-melanoma skin cancer.

Sebaceous carcinoma of the eyelid develops most often on the upper eyelid close to the eyelash line. It is a cancer of the sebaceous glands. These are glands that release an oily substance into tears.

Adenoid cystic carcinoma is the most common type of cancer of the lacrimal (tear) gland. Adenoid cystic carcinoma is a type of adenocarcinoma that starts in gland cells.

Orbital sarcoma is a type of soft tissue sarcoma that starts in the orbit (eye socket). It can start in the muscles that move the eye and it most often affects children.


Expert review and references

Medical disclaimer

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