Statistically, cities the size of Auburn, Alabama; and Huntersville, North Carolina, shouldn’t have any cases of ocular melanoma among their population, yet more than 50 people in just those two cities have been diagnosed with the rare form of eye cancer, baffling physicians.
Auburn University graduate Juleigh Green told CBS News that she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in 2001 when she was 27 years old. Then two of her college friends, Allyson Allred and Ashley McCrary, received the same diagnosis. Another Auburn grad, Lori Lee, didn’t know the others in her college days, but she, too, was diagnosed with the same eye cancer.
Ocular melanoma occurs at a rate of about six people per one million. The cancer forms a malignant tumor from cells called melanocytes that produce the dark-colored pigment melanin, which is present in people’s skin, eyes and hair and the lining of some internal organs, according to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation.
The cancer can also be aggressive. Ms. Green and Ms. Allred both have had an eye removed. Ms. Allred has undergone two liver resections and is currently receiving radiation to shrink metastatic tumors that recurred nine times in six places in her body, she told CNN.
“The cancer in my liver is stable, but in December, it went to my adrenal glands, a place near my kidney, a place near my diaphragm and a place next to my thyroid. So I did radiation on all those four spots. And last week, I found out that it had gone to my brain, and began radiation on my brain,” she told CNN.
Ms. Lee told CBS News that the cancer spread to her liver and now she travels to Philadelphia every six weeks for treatment at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University, where many of the other Auburn graduates diagnosed with ocular melanoma go for treatment.
According to CNN, of the more than 50 people with ocular melanoma in Huntersville and Auburn, 38 attended Auburn University between 1983 and 2001.
The Alabama Department of Public Health says it is looking into the anomaly but says it has not identified its source. According to CBS, physicians familiar with the cases suspect an unknown environmental culprit is to blame.