A potential risk factor for the development of cataracts is cancer. (Learn More)
Cancer treatments are often aggressive. Radiation and medications like steroids can also lead to cataract formation. (Learn More)
Fortunately, cataracts are treatable with a common, simple surgery that replaces the cloudy lens with an artificial, clear one. (Learn More)
Cataracts can be a side effect of cancer and cancer treatment, but they can also be fixed with a safe and effective surgery.
Cancer & Cataracts
Cancer can increase the likelihood that someone will develop cataracts.
The most common cause of cataracts is age, as cataracts start to form due to a natural breakdown of the proteins in your eyes. This can cause a clumping, which leads to a clouding of the lens of the eye that generally starts around age 40.
Usually, cataracts progress slowly over many years and do not start impacting vision until a person is much older. Cataracts can develop early and progress more quickly if other conditions are present, however.
Cataracts can form for a variety of reasons other than age. Risk factors include:
- Family history of cataracts.
- Medical conditions like diabetes.
- Exposure to sunlight and UV rays.
- Surgery or injury to the eye.
- Radiation treatments.
- Medications, such as corticosteroids.
Early-onset cataracts can also elevate your risk for cancer, studies show. Cataracts are formed due to a slowing down of the activity of antioxidant enzymes, which leads to oxidative damage in the lens of the eye.
Cancer formation is related to a similar mechanism in the body. As a result, there is a link between the earlier development of cataracts and a later onset of cancer.
Treatments for Cancer & Cataract Risks
There are different types of cataracts, including secondary cataracts and radiation cataracts, which can be caused by cancer treatments. Secondary cataracts are the result of either medication or disease. Radiation cataracts develop due to radiation exposure.
Both steroid medications and radiation are treatments for cancer that can increase the risk for developing cataracts.
Cancer is often treated through high doses of radiation. This can lead to the formation of a radiation cataract when the radiation exposure includes the upper part of your body. Research shows a distinct link between radiation exposure and radiation-induced cataracts.
Another treatment for cancer involves the use of corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation. Typically, the dosage needs to be high to be effective, and cancer-related steroid treatment is often of a long duration. Long-term use of steroids carries many risks, including an increased potential to develop a secondary cataract.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) reports that using high-powered steroids in high doses early on and then tapering off to lower-potency steroid in lower doses is preferable. This approach carries less risk for developing cataracts than maintaining a moderate dose of steroids for a longer time.
Cancer often needs to be treated aggressively, but these treatment methods may come with hefty side effects and risk factors, including the development of early-onset cataracts. Discuss the potential risks and benefits of all cancer treatments with your doctors. Generally, the benefits will outweigh the risks.
Even if you do develop cataracts as the result of cancer treatment, they can be effectively treated through a safe and effective surgical procedure.
What Are Cataracts? (October 2020). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Increased Risk of Cancer in Patients With Early-Onset Cataracts: A Nationwide Population-Based Study. (April 2014). Cancer Science.
When Cancer Treatment Caused Cataracts, Surgery Helped Her See Again. (May 2016). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Radiation Cataracts: New Data and New Recommendations. (October 2014). American Journal of Roentgenology (AJR).
Savvy Steroid Use. (February 2013). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Cataracts. (August 2019). National Eye Institute (NEI).
Recovery Cataract Surgery. (December 2017). NHS.
The Risk of Cataract among Survivors of Childhood and Adolescent Cancer: A Report From the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study. (April 2017). Radiation Research.