Doctors stumped as dozens diagnosed with rare eye cancer in Alabama

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In a baffling medical mystery, a group Auburn University graduates, along with a number of people in North Carolina, have all developed the same rare eye cancer several years apart.

Ocular melanoma is a particularly rare form of eye cancer. It typically affects only six out of every one million people — but for an unexplained reason, it’s been diagnosed in 36 graduates from Auburn University, as well as an 18 patients in Huntersville, N.C.

What’s even more troubling is that three of women were close friends while attending Auburn.

ocular melanoma women

(L-R) Ashley McCrary, Allison Allred, Juleigh Green and Lori Lee [Photo Credit: CBS this Morning]

Juleigh Green told CBS News she was the first of her friends from the university located in Auburn, Ala, to be diagnosed with ocular melanoma after seeing unusual flashes of light. She was only 27.

“[My doctor] said, ‘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 said. “It’s like you had the breath knocked out of you, you know?”

Green soon connected to other college friends who were also diagnosed with the same disease. One of them, Ashley McCrary created the Auburn Ocular Melanoma Facebook page, which has now connected 36 people who say they attended the university and have been diagnosed with ocular melanoma.

“We believe that when we’re looking at what’s going on in Huntersville, North Carolina,”McCrary told CBS news, “and what’s going on here, there is something that potentially links us together.”

Researching the connection

Even though the Alabama Department of Health (ADPH) says it would be “premature to determine that a cancer cluster exists in the area,” Marlana Orloff, an oncologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, is still studying the cases with her colleagues trying to find the root cause.

“Most people don’t know anyone with this disease,” Orloff told CBS. “We said, ‘Okay, these girls were in this location, they were all definitively diagnosed with this very rare cancer — what’s going on?’”

What is ocular melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of cancer that develops in the cells that produce melanin — the pigment that gives your skin its color. Your eyes also have melanin-producing cells and can develop melanoma. Eye melanoma is also called ocular melanoma.

Most eye melanomas form in the part of the eye you can’t see when looking in a mirror. This makes eye melanoma difficult to detect. In addition, eye melanoma typically doesn’t cause early signs or symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, eye melanoma may not cause signs and symptoms. When they do occur, signs and symptoms of eye melanoma can include:

  • A growing dark spot on the iris
  • A sensation of flashing lights
  • A change in the shape of the dark circle (pupil) at the center of your eye
  • Poor or blurry vision in one eye
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Sensation of flashes and specks of dust in your vision (floaters)

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. Sudden changes in your vision signal an emergency, so seek immediate care in those situations.

“Although we have the diagnosis of ocular melanoma, we do not know at this time what the environmental, social, or genetic factors are that may have contributed to this diagnosis,” the group posted on their Facebook page. “We are determined to work together to find a cure and a way to prevent others from having to fight this terrible disease.”

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