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The Truth About Eyelid Skin Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

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We've all heard the sun safety message to 'slip, slop, slap'. But how often do you apply sunscreen to your eyelids? Eyelid cancers are more common than you might think. They make up 5-10% of all cancer cases. 

Skin cancer can occur in the upper eyelid, but more commonly affects the lower eyelids. Basal cell carcinomas are the most common skin cancers of the eyelid, making up about 90% of malignant eyelid tumours. Melanoma makes up less than 1% of eyelid cancers. 

Skin cancer on the eyelid is a serious condition that can lead to disfigurement or even the loss of your eye. Here we discuss how you can protect yourself from this common and potentially life-altering cancer and the signs to look for that something may be wrong. 

Can you get skin cancer on your eyelid?

Yes, the eyelids are a common place for skin cancer. Around 5-10% of all cases of skin cancer are found in the eyelid region. The lower eyelid is more commonly affected than the upper eyelid and basal cell carcinomas are the most common type of skin cancer in that location, making up 90% of cases.

Common types of eyelid skin cancer

  • Basal cell carcinoma
  • Sebaceous carcinoma (Cancer of sebum-producing glands)
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Melanoma

Less common types of eyelid skin cancer

Close up of woman's nose in the sunlight

Common eyelid skin cancer symptoms 

The symptoms of eyelid cancer will vary from person to person, or they may have none at all. It's also important to remember that not all of these symptoms are necessarily signs of cancer

  • Small, skin-coloured bump or new growth 
  • Loss of eyelashes
  • Swelling, pain or tenderness in the eyelid
  • Redness, itching or irritation of the eyelid
  • A lump or bump on the eyelid which is prone to bleeding or crusting
  • Discharge from the eye or vision problems
  • Thickening of the skin on the eyelid
  • Chronic infection or inflammation of the eyelid
  • Discolouration of the skin of the eyelid
  • Ulceration that does not heal
  • Changes in the appearance of the skin

How skin cancer on the eyelids is treated

Treating skin cancers on the eyelids can be more complex than treating cancers on other parts of the skin because not only do they protect and lubricate the eyes, the eyelid is a delicate structure where skin cancers can easily go undetected. 

Following a biopsy, your doctor may recommend a treatment such as mohs surgery where an incision is made to remove the entire lesion. Following procedures to remove the eyelid cancer, reconstruction is required to help eye function. Cosmetic surgery may also be necessary to improve scar tissue. 

Other treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy may be recommended. 

Eyelid cancers have a recurrence rate of about 5% after the initial procedure to remove it. Only extremely rarely is eye removal required as a part of the treatment for eyelid skin cancer. 

How to prevent skin cancer on your eyelids 

Hats and sunglasses can protect us from UV radiation - the leading cause of skin cancer - to some extent, but they are often not worn when undertaking exercise such as swimming. 

You can, however, apply sunscreen to your eye area, including your eyelids. Here are some tips on the best way to do this. If you think using an SPF moisturiser might be an easier option, research has shown people do a worse job applying moisturiser on the eyelids compared to sunscreen. 

If possible, staying out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day from 10am-3pm is the best way to protect your eyelids from sun damage. 

Risk factors and causes of skin cancer on the eyelid

  • Exposure to UV rays including sun exposure
  • Fair hair, eyes or skin tone 
  • Being over 50 years of age
  • A history of sunburn
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer
  • Men are more likely than women to be diagnosed with skin cancer
  • Having precancerous lesions such as actinic keratoses or Bowen's disease
Skin doctor checking patient's skin

What to do if you're concerned about skin cancer

Regularly checking your own skin for signs of skin cancer can help you detect a suspicious spot and boost your chance of successful treatment. This is no replacement, however, for a regular skin check with a doctor.

If you have a lump on your eyelid that concerns you, book an appointment to have it seen by a doctor who specialises in skin cancer detection and treatment. The doctors at SunDoctors can examine your eyes during a full-body skin check. Consultations with our extensively trained medical practitioners take just a few minutes and no referral is needed. 

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