Eyelid cancer

What is it?

Cancer is a group of conditions in which cells grow and multiply uncontrollably in a particular part of the body. If the growth (tumour) stays in one place, it is known as ‘benign’. If the tumour invades or colonises areas that are normally reserved for other cells, it’s called ‘malignant’.

Most eyelid cancers – 9 in 10 – are known as ‘basal cell carcinomas’ that affect the skin. A carcinoma is a cancer that starts in surface cells that line the inside or outside of the body.

Basal cell carcinoma is a malignant cancer. Although the most common subtype isn’t very aggressive, some of the others are.

In most cases – about 7 in 10 – it’s the lower eyelid that’s affected. But basal cell carcinoma can also happen on the upper lid or at the corner of the eye.

Other types of eyelid cancer include ‘squamous cell carcinoma’, ‘melanoma’ and  ‘sebaceous gland carcinoma’.

  • Causes

    Eyelid cancer has been linked to over-exposure to the sun, including getting sunburnt as a child. Sun beds are also a risk factor. People with very fair skin may have more risk of developing eyelid cancer.

  • Symptoms

    The symptoms of eyelid cancer depend on the specific type, but may include painless skin lumps, changes in skin colour around the eye and loss of eyelashes. Eyelid tumours normally grow over a period of weeks to months. These may become red, develop an open sore (ulcer) or start bleeding. Less often, the cancer may only cause a deformed eyelid or a persistently red eye. Long-term (chronic) symptoms that only affect one eye should be a red alert that a more serious condition could be underlying the cause.

  • Prevention

    Keeping your face out of the sun may reduce the risk of eyelid cancer developing. Other measures include avoiding sun beds and preventing sunburn, especially in children.

  • Treatments

    Surgery is the main treatment for most eyelid cancers. This involves cutting the tumour out – usually under local anaesthetic – and then reconstructing the damaged area. The sooner eyelid cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat successfully.

    In rare cases, some aggressive types of eyelid cancer may mean that the whole eye must be removed to stop the cancer from spreading to other parts of the body.

  • Research

    At the moment the main treatment for aggressive eyelid cancer is surgery that can seriously change the patient’s appearance or even leave them blind on the affected side. So it is vital to understand how and why some tumours are so aggressive. We may one day be able to have a treatment that stops the cancer spreading without the need for such mutilating surgery.

    Read our research projects
  • Clinical trials

    You could play an important part in eye research by being a participant in clinical research study that may benefit many people. You could even help shape clinical research by becoming more actively involved and having a say. Patients, carer, or anyone with an interest can help.

    What are clinical trials

    Clinical trials are research studies that find out if a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans. They are a key research tool for improving medical knowledge and patient care. The people who carry out research are mostly the same doctors and healthcare professionals who treat people. Their aim is to find better ways of treating patients and keeping people healthy.

    Taking part

    Here are some ways to find out about research projects and clinical trials that you can get involved in.

    UK Clinical Trials Gateway

    The UK Clinical Trials Gateway run by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) provides easy to understand information about clinical research trials running in the UK, and gives to a large range of information about these trials. It is designed to enable patients and clinicians to locate and contact trials of interest. Visit their website and select the eye condition that you are interested in.

    NIHR Clinical Research Network Portfolio

    The NIHR Clinical Research Network Portfolio is a database of high-quality clinical research studies in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Within this the Ophthalmology Specialty Group supports a national portfolio of research studies in ophthalmology and the vision sciences. See their website for details.

    If you wish to join a trial it is always best to discuss this with your doctor or clinical team first.

Last updated September 2015
Approved by Mr John Bladen, Moorfields Eye Hospital

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