Vision Loss and Cancer Care: Important Facts and Resources             

Written by: Beth Dougherty

Certain forms of cancer and cancer treatment can affect your vision and, in rare cases, cause vision loss. At Dana-Farber, our care teams will work with you to help you understand the possibilities, know what to look for, and take action to manage any vision changes that might occur.  

What types of cancer can cause vision changes? 

Certain cancers can affect vision directly: 

  • Eye cancer (eye lymphoma, ocular melanoma, retinoblastoma): Tumors can develop in the eye and alter vision.   
  • For example, symptoms of ocular melanoma include floaters, a dark spot on the iris that grows, a change in the shape of the pupil, vision changes in one eye, or a loss of peripheral vision. 
  • Cancer in the brain: Brain tumors including brain metastases from other cancers can alter vision by putting pressure on the eye, the optic nerve, or affecting the occipital lobe, where visual signals are processed. 
  • Symptoms include blurred vision, double vision, abnormal eye movements, sensitivity to light, or loss of vision. 
  • Metastasis in the eye: The most common way for cancer to affect the eye is for cancer to spread there from someplace else, typically from breast or lung cancer. 
  • Symptoms include flashes, floaters, or distorted vision if the cancer is within the eye, or displacement of the eye in the eye socket if it is behind the eye. 

What types of cancer medication can cause vision changes? 

Chemotherapy, some targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and hormone therapy all have the potential to affect vision, but complete vision loss is rare.  

If you experience any of these symptoms while taking one of these cancer medications, let your doctor know immediately. 

  • Red, swollen eyelids 
  • Watery eyes 
  • Floaters or flashes of light that come and go (Note: A sudden onset of many floaters and flashes requires immediate medical attention) 
  • Dry eyes 
  • Changes in eyelashes such as color changes or growth toward the eye 
  • Cataracts, cloudy vision 
  • Glaucoma 

Vision changes related to these medicines is typically temporary and can be managed with the help of your care team. 

Can radiation therapy affect vision? 

Radiation therapy that is delivered close to the eyes, such as for certain Head and Neck cancers, can affect vision. Radiation specialists will strive to provide the most precise treatment possible, but when the areas to be treated are close to the eyes, damage to the retina’s optic nerve, lens or cornea is possible.   

Vision changes resulting from radiation therapy are typically permanent and might not occur until up to 18 months after radiation is complete. 

Signs of eye or vision changes might include the loss of eyelashes, sensitivity to light, changes in the way colors appear, or blurry vision. 

Can I do anything to avoid vision loss before or during treatment? 

Prior to beginning treatment for cancer, ask your oncologist about eye care. Suggestions might include: 

  • Visiting an ophthalmologist or optometrist before treatment begins: Getting a baseline measure of vision and eye health can help your care team monitor and track changes that occur during treatment. 
  • Scheduling more frequent eye care visits during treatment: Frequent visits can help you identify changes and help manage symptoms. 

If you begin to experience vision changes during treatment, alert your cancer care team immediately. 

People who experience changes due to radiation might be referred to visual rehabilitation or occupational therapy to learn how to cope with and adapt to vision changes. 

What if vision changes limit my activities and quality of life? 

Getting used to vision changes will take time. It won’t be easy. During treatment, consider calling on friends, family, and community services to help you carry out your normal routine. Ideas include: 

  • Lining up rides to your appointments. 
  • Having medicines, groceries, or other items delivered or having someone shop for you. 
  • Getting help with housework and making sure there are no tripping hazards. 
  • Lining up pet care or dog walking services. 

Tools, technologies, and services can also enhance your quality of life if vision changes persist. Ideas include: 

  • Reading: If you are having trouble reading, you can try large print books or audiobooks. There are many audiobook sites for people who have trouble reading print. 
  • Using computers, tablets, and smartphones: Many electronic devices have accessibility options that can help people with vision loss. Options include color inversions, enlarged or bold print, built-in magnifiers, screen readers, and voice commands. Some devices have additional features designed specifically for people with vision loss. 
  • Enhancing vision: High-tech eyewear and visual aids — ranging from magnification glasses for reading to eyewear that helps you interpret what you are seeing — might help. Doctors who specialize in low vision can determine if one of these aids is right for you.  
  • Mobility: Guide dogs can help people stay mobile and independent. Your care team, social services team, and ophthalmologist can help you determine if a guide dog could help you. 

Your state may also have helpful services. In Massachusetts, Assistive Technology Services and Independent Living Centers are valuable resources. 

How can I cope with the emotional effects of changes to my vision? 

Cancer and cancer treatment are life changing experiences. Changes such as a loss of vision can be frightening and frustrating. Navigating the health system can also be challenging and coordinating day-to-day life can become more complex and even confusing. 

If you need emotional support during or after treatment for cancer, social services can help. At Dana-Farber, the Adult Social Work Program can help you navigate services and line up support.  

They also help with: 

  • Adjusting to the impacts of illness and treatment on functioning, coping, and relationships 
  • Coping with grief regarding illness related losses 
  • Problem solving to maintain independence and function 
  • Depression and anxiety​ 
  • Distress in response to diagnosis and treatment​ 
  • Concerns about drug and alcohol use​ 
  • Concerns about the impact of cancer on family and caregivers​ 
  • Discussing your illness and treatment with children​ 
  • Coping with advanced cancer and facing uncertainty​ 
  • Concerns about the impact of cancer on work, school, and finances​ 
  • Advance directives conversations and completion​ 
  • Finding support groups and connections