Eye cancer often develops with few symptoms, including vision changes or a dark spot on the iris (colored part) of your eye. Regular eye exams can help you get a diagnosis sooner.

Cancers of the eye usually develop with no symptoms until they become very advanced or appear in an obvious part of the eye. Eye cancers are pretty uncommon, but if you’re at risk, your doctor may test you annually or at your regular eye exams.

This article will explore what early symptoms you might have — if any — how your doctor might screen you for melanoma of the eye, and what your prognosis after treatment might be.

Eye cancer can be difficult to diagnose early since symptoms don’t often appear until the cancer is advanced. When symptoms do appear, they can include thing like:

Diagnosis of ocular melanoma and any other eye disease begins with regular eye examinations.

Your doctor will start visits asking about your family and personal health history, as well as any vision problems or changes you’ve been experiencing from your last exam.

Symptoms and family history can help your doctor know what specific test to perform. In the case of eye melanomas, diagnosis usually happens after tests that look at:

  • the inside of your eye for tumors or other defects using a special microscope
  • assessment of your eye movement, pupil size, shape, and reactivity to light
  • a vision exam
  • imaging tests like X-rays
  • ultrasound
  • dye testing
  • biopsy
  • blood tests

Most ocular melanomas are diagnosed between the ages of 60 and 80, and they peak around age 70.

Symptoms of eye cancers may be mistaken early on for normal, age-related vision changes. Ocular melanomas can occur at any age, only they’re rarer in younger people.

The first thing that will happen after you’re diagnosed with eye cancer is that your doctor will check to see if the cancer has spread and how far.

As with most cancers, ocular cancer has the potential to spread or metastasize to other areas of the body. Metastasis from ocular melanoma rarely occurs at the time of initial diagnosis. It typically occurs after the affected eye is removed.

Metastasis happens in about 40–50% of ocular melanoma cases, and 80% of these cases spread to the liver.

Based on how aggressive your cancer is, metastasis might not be detected for 2 or 3 years after your initial diagnosis or even decades after treatment.

How is eye cancer treated?

Eye cancers can be treated with radiation therapy, chemotherapy eye drops, cryotherapy, or surgery. Your doctor will guide you on which treatment is the best for your specific type and stage of cancer.

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Eye cancers are difficult to catch early due to a lack of symptoms, but most people who develop ocular melanoma survive the disease.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 80% of people diagnosed with eye cancers overall are still alive 5 years after their diagnosis.

Cancers that haven’t spread yet have the highest survival rate at 85% after 5 years, but cancers that spread in the area close to the eye have a 67% survival rate at 5 years, and eye cancers that have spread to distant areas of the body have the lowest survival rate, at just 16%.

Eye cancers are rare, but also very treatable when caught early. Most people (about 85%) whose cancer hasn’t spread past the eye itself live for at least 5 years after their diagnosis.

A lack of symptoms makes early diagnosis difficult, but discussing your risk factors with your doctor and getting regular eye exams can help catch eye cancers early.