In a case that has doctors and researchers scratching their heads, a group of college friends and a number of people in North Carolina have all been diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer several years apart, according to People. Ocular melanoma is an especially rare form of eye cancer, and typically affects only six out of every one million people — but for an unknown reason, it’s been diagnosed in 36 graduates from Auburn University, as well as an additional 18 patients in Huntersville, North Carolina, the New York Daily News reports.
The Ocular Melanoma Foundation says that doctors diagnose about 2000 to 2500 cases of ocular melanoma each year in the United States, according to Newsweek, and as cancer diagnoses go, it’s definitely a less common type — which is why it’s so strange to see it showing up in two separate communities like this, and especially among a group of friends.
Ocular melanoma doesn’t always cause symptoms at first, but it can lead to blurry vision, seeing flashing lights, and changes in pupil shape, Newsweek says. The illness may eventually require chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or the surgical removal of tumors, which can lead to loss of an eye, as occurred with some of the patients. Like other cancers, it can spread to additional areas and organ systems of the body, and is sometimes fatal. Since the eyes are made up of three layers — the outer sclera, the inner retina, and the uvea — cancer can be tough to detect because the cancerous cells tend to clump up in between these tissues.
Juliegh Green told CBS news that she was the first of her friends from the Alabama university to receive an ocular melanoma diagnosis at age 27, after she started seeing strange flashes of light. After getting checked out, Green’s doctor told her that “there’s a mass there, there’s something there, I don’t know what it is, but it looks like it could be, you know, a tumor,” Green told CBS News. Then, in 2001, Green’s school friend, Allison Allred, was also diagnosed with the rare form of eye cancer, as was their mutual friend, Ashley McCrary, after she started seeing black spots.
“What’s crazy is literally standing there, I was like, well, I know two people who’ve had this cancer,” Green told CBS News. McCrary told her oncologist, Dr. Marlana Orloff, that her friends had been diagnosed with the same cancer. Researchers are now looking for links as to why a large group of people would be affected by such a rare cancer at the same time. “Most people don’t know anyone with this disease,” Dr. Orloff told CBS News. “We said, Okay, these girls were in this location, they were all definitively diagnosed with with this very rare cancer — what’s going on?”
Motivated to find other Auburn University students with the rare melanoma, McCrary started a dedicated Facebook page, and, sure enough, 36 other graduates got in touch — including Lori Lee, who is also a patient of Dr. Orloff’s. McCrary told CBS news that “we believe that when we’re looking at what’s going on in Huntersville, North Carolina, and what’s going on here, there is something that potentially links us together.”
Lee also told CBS that “until we get more research into this, then we’re not gonna get anywhere. We’ve got to have it so that we can start linking all of them together to try to find a cause, and then one day, hopefully, a cure.”
The Alabama Department of Health states that “it would be premature to determine that a cancer cluster exists in the area,” according to CBS. But Auburn University officials hope that increased awareness and research will lead to a better understanding of how to treat and cure this cancer, CBS further reports. Doctors think an environmental link may be at the root of these diagnoses, according to Newsweek, but are unable to identify any particular cause of the illnesses for now. A committee led by Auburn University’s Medical Clinic will further investigate these mysterious cases, and McCrary, who also sits on the committee, told WLTZ that “they are going to see when were these people here, what did they major in, where did they live, where did [they] work, and then go forward from there.”