Summary

Key Points

  • Intraocular melanoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the eye.
  • Being older and having fair skin may increase the risk of intraocular melanoma.
  • Signs of intraocular melanoma include blurred vision or a dark spot on the iris.
  • Tests that examine the eye are used to help detect (find) and diagnose intraocular melanoma.
  • A biopsy of the tumor is rarely needed to diagnose intraocular melanoma.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Intraocular melanoma is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the eye.

Intraocular melanoma begins in the middle of three layers of the wall of the eye. The outer layer includes the white sclera (the "white of the eye") and the clear cornea at the front of the eye. The inner layer has a lining of nerve tissue, called the retina, which senses light and sends images along the optic nerve to the brain.

The middle layer, where intraocular melanoma forms, is called the uvea or uveal tract, and has three main parts:

Iris

The iris is the colored area at the front of the eye (the "eye color"). It can be seen through the clear cornea. The pupil is in the center of the iris and it changes size to let more or less light into the eye. Intraocular melanoma of the iris is usually a small tumor that grows slowly and rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

Ciliary body

The ciliary body is a ring of tissue with muscle fibers that change the size of the pupil and the shape of the lens. It is found behind the iris. Changes in the shape of the lens help the eye focus. The ciliary body also makes the clear fluid that fills the space between the cornea and the iris. Intraocular melanoma of the ciliary body is often larger and more likely to spread to other parts of the body than intraocular melanoma of the iris.

Choroid

The choroid is a layer of blood vessels that bring oxygen and nutrients to the eye. Most intraocular melanomas begin in the choroid. Intraocular melanoma of the choroid is often larger and more likely to spread to other parts of the body than intraocular melanoma of the iris.

Intraocular melanoma is a rare cancer that forms from cells that make melanin in the iris, ciliary body, and choroid. It is the most common eye cancer in adults.

Risk Factors

Being older and having fair skin may increase the risk of intraocular melanoma.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn’t mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

Risk factors for intraocular melanoma include the following:

  • Having a fair complexion, which includes the following:


    • Fair skin that freckles and burns easily, does not tan, or tans poorly.
    • Blue or green or other light-colored eyes.
  • Older age.
  • Being white.

Screening and Detection

Tests that examine the eye are used to help detect (find) and diagnose intraocular melanoma.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Eye exam with dilated pupil: An exam of the eye in which the pupil is dilated (enlarged) with medicated eye drops to allow the doctor to look through the lens and pupil to the retina. The inside of the eye, including the retina and the optic nerve, is checked. Pictures may be taken over time to keep track of changes in the size of the tumor. There are several types of eye exams:


    • Ophthalmoscopy: An exam of the inside of the back of the eye to check the retina and optic nerve using a small magnifying lens and a light.
    • Slit-lamp biomicroscopy: An exam of the inside of the eye to check the retina, optic nerve, and other parts of the eye using a strong beam of light and a microscope.
    • Gonioscopy: An exam of the front part of the eye between the cornea and iris. A special instrument is used to see if the area where fluid drains out of the eye is blocked.
  • Ultrasound exam of the eye: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off the internal tissues of the eye to make echoes. Eye drops are used to numb the eye and a small probe that sends and receives sound waves is placed gently on the surface of the eye. The echoes make a picture of the inside of the eye and the distance from the cornea to the retina is measured. The picture, called a sonogram, shows on the screen of the ultrasound monitor.
  • High-resolution ultrasound biomicroscopy: A procedure in which high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) are bounced off the internal tissues of the eye to make echoes. Eye drops are used to numb the eye and a small probe that sends and receives sound waves is placed gently on the surface of the eye. The echoes make a more detailed picture of the inside of the eye than a regular ultrasound. The tumor is checked for its size, shape, and thickness, and for signs that the tumor has spread to nearby tissue.
  • Transillumination of the globe and iris: An exam of the iris, cornea, lens, and ciliary body with a light placed on either the upper or lower lid.
  • Fluorescein angiography: A procedure to look at blood vessels and the flow of blood inside the eye. An orange fluorescent dye (fluorescein) is injected into a blood vessel in the arm and goes into the bloodstream. As the dye travels through blood vessels of the eye, a special camera takes pictures of the retina and choroid to find any areas that are blocked or leaking.
  • Indocyanine green angiography: A procedure to look at blood vessels in the choroid layer of the eye. A green dye (indocyanine green) is injected into a blood vessel in the arm and goes into the bloodstream. As the dye travels through blood vessels of the eye, a special camera takes pictures of the retina and choroid to find any areas that are blocked or leaking.
  • Ocular coherence tomography: An imaging test that uses light waves to take cross-section pictures of the retina, and sometimes the choroid, to see if there is swelling or fluid beneath the retina.

A biopsy of the tumor is rarely needed to diagnose intraocular melanoma.

A biopsy is the removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. Rarely, a biopsy of the tumor is needed to diagnose intraocular melanoma. Tissue that is removed during a biopsy or surgery to remove the tumor may be tested to get more information about prognosis and which treatment options are best.
The following tests may be done on the sample of tissue:

  • Cytogenetic analysis: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are viewed under a microscope to look for certain changes in the chromosomes.
  • Gene expression profiling: A laboratory test in which cells in a sample of tissue are checked for certain types of RNA.

A biopsy may result in retinal detachment (the retina separates from other tissues in the eye). This can be repaired by surgery.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs of intraocular melanoma include blurred vision or a dark spot on the iris.

Intraocular melanoma may not cause early signs or symptoms. It is sometimes found during a regular eye exam when the doctor dilates the pupil and looks into the eye. Signs and symptoms may be caused by intraocular melanoma or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Blurred vision or other change in vision.
  • Floaters (spots that drift in your field of vision) or flashes of light.
  • A dark spot on the iris.
  • A change in the size or shape of the pupil.
  • A change in the position of the eyeball in the eye socket.

Treatment Options

There are different types of treatments for patients with intraocular melanoma.

Different types of treatments are available for patients with intraocular melanoma. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Five types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery is the most common treatment for intraocular melanoma. The following types of surgery may be used:

  • Resection: Surgery to remove the tumor and a small amount of healthy tissue around it.
  • Enucleation: Surgery to remove the eye and part of the optic nerve. This is done if vision cannot be saved and the tumor is large, has spread to the optic nerve, or causes high pressure inside the eye. After surgery, the patient is usually fitted for an artificial eye to match the size and color of the other eye.
  • Exenteration: Surgery to remove the eye and eyelid, and muscles, nerves, and fat in the eye socket. After surgery, the patient may be fitted for an artificial eye to match the size and color of the other eye or a facial prosthesis.

Watchful Waiting

Watchful waiting is closely monitoring a patient’s condition without giving any treatment until signs or symptoms appear or change. Pictures are taken over time to keep track of changes in the size of the tumor and how fast it is growing.

Watchful waiting is used for patients who do not have signs or symptoms and the tumor is not growing. It is also used when the tumor is in the only eye with useful vision.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy. External-beam radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Localized plaque radiation therapy is a type of internal radiation therapy that may be used for tumors of the eye. Radioactive seeds are attached to a disk, called a plaque. The plaque is placed directly on the wall of the eye where the tumor is located. The side with the seeds faces the eyeball and delivers radiation to the eye. The plaque, which is often made of gold, helps protect nearby tissues from radiation damage.

Charged-particle external beam radiation therapy is a type of external-beam radiation therapy. A special radiation therapy machine aims tiny, invisible particles, called protons or helium ions, at the cancer cells to kill them with little damage to nearby normal tissues. Charged-particle radiation therapy uses a different type of radiation than the x-ray type of radiation therapy.

Gamma Knife therapy is a type of stereotactic radiosurgery used for some melanomas. This treatment can be given in one treatment. It aims tightly focused gamma rays directly at the tumor so there is little damage to healthy tissue. Gamma Knife therapy does not use a knife to remove the tumor and is not an operation.

Photocoagulation

Photocoagulation is a procedure that uses laser light to destroy blood vessels that bring nutrients to the tumor, causing the tumor cells to die. Photocoagulation may be used to treat small tumors. This is also called light coagulation.

Thermotherapy

Thermotherapy is the use of heat from a laser to destroy cancer cells and shrink the tumor.

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Last Updated: 2015-09-20

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