At least a dozen and a half people have been diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer in two locations in North Carolina and Alabama, leaving medical experts mystified about the cause. Ocular melanoma occurs in about 6 out of every 1 million people, according to CBS News, and at least 18 people who have been diagnosed with the eye cancer have connections to Huntersville, N.C., Auburn, Ala., or both locations.
Marlana Orloff, an oncologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, is studying the cases with her colleagues, according to CBS.
“Most people don’t know anyone with this disease,” Orloff said. “We said, 'Okay, these girls were in this location, they were all definitively diagnosed with this very rare cancer — what’s going on?’ ”
Alabama health officials have declined to call the outbreak a cluster yet.
Three friends, Juleigh Green, Allison Allred and Ashley McCrary, are among those who have been treated for the cancer, and two of them, Green and Allred, had to get an eye removed.
“What’s crazy is literally standing there, I was like, ‘Well, I know two people who’ve had this cancer,’ ” McCrary said.
Many of the patients are now traveling to Philadelphia for treatment. The cancer has presented complications for some of the patients, CBS reported. Lori Lee, an Auburn University graduate, had the cancer metastasize in her liver.
According to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation, the disease is a malignant tumor that often spreads to other parts of the body, a process that is “most often fatal and occurs in about half of all cases.” It is much rarer than skin melanoma.
The foundation says that the melanoma’s causes are unknown but that it occurs more frequently in people with fair skin and blue eyes, with a median age of 55.
Huntersville has formed a committee to continue research into the cancer. An investigation in the county failed to find concrete answers, according to Charlotte-based WCNC-TV. It discovered some toxic releases in the water and air but nothing definitively linked to the cancer.
“It’s just hard to believe that there’s not a common thread here,” Pat Cotham, the county commissioner of Mecklenburg County, which includes Huntersville and Charlotte, told the outlet. “I just keep thinking they need to do more.”
The state of Alabama and Auburn University have both failed to approve funding to explore the cancer, reported WLTZ-TV, the Georgia-based station that serves east-central Alabama.
Frederick Kam, executive medical director of Auburn University’s Medical Clinic, told the outlet that he plans to lead a committee to explore the issue.
“This is not a good type of cancer for a person to have. There’s no known cause, which makes it more challenging,” the physician said.
Allred’s cancer has come back nine times in different places in her body, CBS reported.
The patients have started a Facebook page, connecting with 36 Auburn University graduates who said that they had been diagnosed with the melanoma.
Steve Durant, a retail IT consultant diagnosed with the melanoma, told the Charlotte Observer last year that he’d rather have doctors find a way to cure the illness than understand the apparent geographic connection between the cases.
“I’d rather have a cure than a conclusion,” he said.