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EXCLUSIVE: A wife noticed her husband’s eye looked smaller. It was a sign of a rare cancer

Jennifer Cunningham, a nurse, saw that her husband's eye looked smaller. Eventually, he decided to see a doctor. He had a rare lymphoma in his eye socket.
/ Source: TODAY

Last March, Jennifer Cunningham noticed her husband, Chris Cunningham, had a swollen eye.

“My eye was smaller than the other,” Chris Cunningham, a 48-year-old college administrator from Pembroke Pines, Florida, tells “I was feeling around, and I noticed a lump underneath my eyebrow.”

At first, he thought little of it especially because it wasn’t painful. Still, his wife encouraged him to see a doctor. Thanks to her insistence, he learned the swelling was a sign of a rare cancer.

“I’m the one that looks at my face in the mirror every morning when I wake up. I didn’t even notice it,” he says. “She did.”

Eye Cancer
The Cunninghams met as grad students at the University of Miami, where Chris Cunningham was later treated for a rare type of cancer.Courtesy UHealth

Swollen eye leads to unusual diagnosis

When Jennifer Cunningham, who is a nurse, first noticed that Chris Cunningham’s eye looked different, she didn’t say anything right away.

“One side looked normal and then on the other side — not that he was squinting or not that his eyelid was droopy — it’s just like the eyeball was like a third less visible,” Jennifer Cunningham, 48, tells “Finally, I asked him, ‘What is going on with your eye?’”

While Chris Cunningham hadn’t noticed the change originally, the couple began wondering if he had some sort of eye infection.

“Within a couple days, he was able to feel that mass (under his eyebrow),” Jennifer Cunningham explains. “That concerned him. After he felt it, he was pretty much like, ‘Well, let’s figure out exactly what it is.’”

The couple felt unsure of where to turn, so Chris Cunningham first saw an optometrist, who thought it could be a sinus infection. Then he visited an ear, nose and throat doctor.

“She was befuddled. She ordered an MRI,” he says. “Then she recommended that I see an ophthalmologist.”

The ophthalmologist ordered more tests, and a scan uncovered the mass, which wasn't an infection. Doctors recommended surgery to remove it.

Eye Cancer
After surgery, Chris Cunningham's eye looked a bit like it did when his wife, Jennifer Cunningham, first noticed something was wrong and prompted him to a see a doctor.Courtesy Chris Cunningham

“The worst part of this, of course, was not knowing,” Chris Cunningham says. “When I did find out that I did, in fact, have cancer, it was a bit of a relief because at least I knew what it was and how we were going to go about taking care of it.” It took about eight months and many “anxiety inducing moments” from when his wife first noticed something wrong until he was diagnosed with cancer in November 2023, Chris Cunningham recalls.

Surgeons removed about half of the tumor, enough to get a biopsy to create a plan for future treatment. Recovery wasn’t too bad, all things considered.

“It was obviously in a very (sensitive) area above my eye. The surgeon had to go through my eyelid,” Chris Cunningham says. “The pain wasn’t as bad as you’d expect.”

As the couple waited for his diagnosis, he suspected he had lymphoma because his father died from this type of cancer, which typically originates in the lymph system, when he was 7.

After surgery, doctors at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of University of Miami Health System confirmed it.

"My wife and I had discussed that, so it wasn’t a huge surprise. But it took a while to diagnose," Chris Cunningham says.

It took time, in part, because his type of cancer is a relatively rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It isn’t genetic and is likely different from the aggressive cancer his father had.

“Typically, lymphomas are found in the lymph nodes, and this was found in the tissue between,” Chris Cunningham says. “It’s called MALT lymphoma.”

MALT lymphoma

Mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) lymphoma is a "rare form of lymphoma," Dr. Ney Alves, a hematologic oncologist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, tells

These tumors grow in mucosal membranes, such as the lining of the internal organs, and often occur in the stomach, lungs, tongue or the eye socket, aka the orbital cavity, he adds.

MALT lymphoma occurs more commonly in people on medications that suppress the immune system, such as those with autoimmune conditions, Alves explains. Experts have been seeing a slight increase in this type of cancer, in part because more people are taking immune-suppressant drugs.

However, MALT can also spontaneously occur, Alves notes, which was the case with Chris Cunningham.

When it comes to symptoms of MALT, many patients with the cancer near their eye, like Chris Cunningham, notice a change, such as a swollen or protruding eye. But it can be difficult to find tumors in the stomach or lungs because they don't cause distinct signs, only general symptoms that can be associated a wide range of conditions.

It's "very hard do diagnose," Alves adds.

The good news is that these tumors aren’t aggressive and do not cause "significant problems, like pain or organ dysfunction,” Alves says. “These lymphomas tend to have slow growth.”

Treatment often includes surgery followed by radiation, which usually cures the cancer.

“The long-term prognosis with patients with radiotherapy alone … is very high in the long run — five, 10 years out ... more than 90% (survive),” Alves says.

Eye Cancer
As treatments continued, radiation took a toll on Chris Cunningham. Still, he feels grateful that he has completed it and is cancer-free.Courtesy Chris Cunningham


After his diagnosis, Chris Cunningham received 15 rounds of radiation, five days a week for three weeks starting in late November and finishing in mid-December 2023.

“Toward the end of my treatments, I started to get very, very fatigued, just not wanting to get off the couch,” he says. “I did have some localized skin (troubles) … almost like a sunburn or radiation burn locally around my eye.”

He also lost his eyebrow and some hair near his ear. That eye felt particularly dry, and he needs to keep it lubricated. About two weeks after finishing treatment, though, he began to feel “back to normal."

“I am completely healed,” Chris Cunningham says. “I’m cancer-free.”

The Cunninghams met each other as undergraduate students at the University of Miami. All these years later, it feels fitting that the university came back into their lives in what they call a “full-circle moment.”

“That’s where I met my wife, who ... was the one who encouraged me to get it checked out,” Chris Cunningham says. “Not to be hyperbolic, but she saved my life.”

He also feels grateful for Jennifer Cunningham’s support during his cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“She’s been my angel through this whole thing. I’ve leaned on her for information,” he says. “I probably couldn’t have done it without her.”