Cancer and the Eye: What You Need to Know
What Classifies as Cancer?
The term cancer is frequently heard and is synonymous with a poor prognosis and likely chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
While these forms of cancer are the most obvious, such as breast cancer or lung cancer, other cancers can occur throughout the body.
A cancer is any mass of tissue that is growing without regulation. This definition includes benign tumors which have no risk of spreading.
Most cancers that affect the eyes are benign and not threatening, but some are sight and life-threatening conditions.
Benign Cancers in the Eyes
A benign tumor can be classified as cancerous and have very little, if any, impact on vision or risk associated with it.
These cancers are not typically thought of in a way that would be associated with the more concerning cancers which require treatments.
Types of benign cancers in the eye include choriodal osteoma, melanocytoma, astrocytic hamartoma, meningioma, and glioma.
These cancers are found in a dilated, comprehensive eye exam and will be noted in the medical chart but typically not require any treatment as they are benign findings.
If treatment is indicated, it is likely due to the size of the tumor or the location of the tumor that is affecting the eye’s function.
Some of these benign cancers can be associated with other diseases and may require a workup to rule out anything that may be an underlying cause of the tumor.
If the tumor is not causing any vision or functional issues and there is no underlying systemic cause, these cancers can simply be monitored with a routine eye exam each year.
Malignant Cancers in the Eyes
While benign cancers are much more common in the eyes, malignant cancers are far more concerning. These cancers can spread easily and are a risk to affect the rest of the eye and the brain.
Since these cancers have the potential to cause a loss of vision or loss of life, they are treated urgently and aggressively.
The most common malignant cancer of the eye is a choroidal melanoma. Other malignant cancers include retinoblastoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, and uveal carcinoma.
Each of these cancers affects the eyes differently but all have the risk of metastasizing, or spreading, to the brain.
Treating a Malignant Cancer of the Eye
If the cancer is severe, enucleation, or removing the eye, is a treatment option to prevent any risk of metastasis to the brain which would be a life-threatening consequence.
If the cancer is less severe or smaller, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or partial surgical removal may be the treatment that is needed.
Causes of Cancers in the Eyes
Cancers that form in the eyes are either primary or secondary cancers. Primary cancers form from the tissue in the eyes and are almost always hereditary or without a known cause.
Secondary cancers originate from a cancer in another part of the body and then spread to the eyes to form another tumor. The source of these secondary cancers can typically be traced with a biopsy of the tumor.
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