A significant number of people have been diagnosed with a rare type of eye cancer, leaving researchers and epidemiologists guessing for the reason for this bizarre occurrence.
The eye cancer has affected around 50 individuals in two locations: Huntersville, North Carolina, and Auburn, Alabama. At least 38 of the 50 individuals attended Auburn University between 1983 and 2001 according to a Facebook page created for a group of patients. The cancer, known as ocular melanoma, only occurs in around 6 out of every 1 million individuals – making it an incredibly rare cancer and making it quite strange that it is occurring in so many people in a concentrated area, almost all of which obtained the same school around the same time.
“When I was diagnosed, I kept wanting to talk to someone who had been through this before and had done well,” said Juleigh Green reports CNN, “but it seemed like nobody had heard of this or had any connection with anyone who had this, and that’s when I realized how incredibly rare it was.” Juleigh Green was the first person from the group of the Auburn students to receive this rare eye cancer diagnosis – originally diagnosed back in 1999. She has since had surgery to remove her left eye, and has not had any recurrences of the cancer since.
Ocular melanoma, as mentioned above, is an incredibly rare eye cancer that is rarely seen. The condition refers to a malignant tumor that develops from cells known as melanocytes that create dark-colored pigment called melanin. Symptoms of the illness vary, but generally include some sort of blurry vision as well as vision loss.
Dr. Marlana Orloff is an oncologist at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia, and is responsible for the treatment of a large number of the patients in the Alabama group of eye cancer sufferers.
“ For the primary eye tumors, it will either be incidentally picked up on routine eye exam having no symptoms, or more commonly patients have symptoms of a retinal detachment with flashes and floaters or blurry vision,” she said.”
Despite the very low occurrence rate of this type of eye cancer, it’s actually the second most common type of melanoma – making up just 5% of cases and really driving home how common skin cancer has become. However, unlike skin melanomas, the outlook for those with ocular melanoma isn’t nearly as good.
“Even though people want to lump it in with skin melanoma, we know that it’s a very different disease, and a lot o the treatments for skin melanoma don’t work for eye melanoma, “Orloff said. “There’s really nothing officially FDA-approved to treat eye melanoma.”
There is no known cure for this particular type of eye cancer at this point in time, although radiation therapy and surgery can be employed to help prolong life and increase comfort.
According to Orloff, “Once they’re diagnosed, the treatment is often radiation…or if the tumors are very large or depending on location, enucleation, or removal of the eye may be necessary.”
Epidemiologists and doctors have no idea at this point why there was such a collection of this rare eye cancer in such a concentrated area. Even more bizarre is the fact that the majority of patients attended the same university around the same time – making one wonder if something happened there around that time that could have contributed to this disease. At this point, however, that’s all speculation and researchers are left guessing as to what caused this spike in rare eye cancer.
The Alabama Department of Public Health made a statement regarding the increase in occurrences, stating that “we are working closely with Auburn, a survivor we have connected with and Dr. Orloff’s team…we are collaborating and working in an advisory role; the survivor who has spoken out is providing us a complete list o all those who have been sickened, and then we will work to verify the incidents and make sure the cases meat the definition of ocular melanoma.”