The Auburn Ocular Melanoma Page on Facebook is raising money to help fund research into why a surprisingly large number of former Auburn University students have developed a rare form of cancer and whether it may have an environmental cause.
“We are the faces of a group of more than 36 people whose only other connection was a love for Auburn University,” a July 27 posting by the administrator reads. “But this group is made up of an equal number of men and women – four of the 36 have died. That is devastating. Eight have had metastatic disease. This is significant … We have got to figure out a cause and a cure.”
The post coincided with the release of People magazine’s July 26 issue, which featured the stories of Auburn alumni who have been diagnosed with the rare form of cancer ocular melanoma.
Ocular melanoma (OM) – also called uveal melanoma – is a type of cancer that develops in the cells that produce pigment. The disease is diagnosed in about 2,500 adults in the U.S. each year, according to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation. Approximately 50 percent of patients with OM will develop metastases by 10 to 15 years after diagnosis. A small percentage will develop metastases 20 to 25 years after diagnosis. Metastatic disease is 100 percent fatal.
Since OM is so rare, the fact that more than three dozen alumni, employees or relatives of employees at Auburn University between 1983 and 2001 have developed the disease has raised red flags. A similar outbreak of OM occurred among a group of 18 people in Huntersville, North Carolina, including several women in their 20s who attended the same high school. No environmental connection has been found there either.
The Auburn Ocular Melanoma Page is actively looking for others from Auburn who have the disease as well as raising money through its website eyepatchchallenge.org to fund research to find out if there is a connection. The group has raised about $12,000 so far, but needs about $135,000 to $200,000 to fund the study.
“We’re looking into environmental toxins,” Dr. Marlana Orloff, an oncologist at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, told People. She is researching both Auburn cases of OM as well as the outbreak in North Carolina. “Air, water, soil. We don’t really have any leads. We’re starting at square one.”
The State of Alabama and Auburn University have provided no funds for the study, to date. But Auburn released a statement that the school was working with the Alabama Department of Public Health and researchers on the issue.
Time is not on the side of these victims of OM.
“Our lives are at stake,” said Allyson Allred, an Auburn alum with OM and daughter of former Alabama state senator Bill Armistead. Armistead tried – but failed – to sway Auburn into adding $100,000 for OM research in its education budget. “I have no treatment option right now. We need a treatment for this, and my doctor says he can have a treatment for this within five years of finding a cause.”
Auburn Ocular Melanoma Page – Facebook
Ocular Melanoma Foundation