15 women mostly in their 30s or younger are diagnosed with disease that only affects five in every million in a 25-mile area
The eye cancer cluster has been diagnosed in nearly two dozen people in a 15-mile radius surrounding Huntersville, North Carolina
Patients develop ocular melanoma, a form of eye cancer that is most common in men in their 60s
Researchers are still searching for link but so far have not found any environmental or genetic causes
Jessica Boesmiller, 37, who lives five miles outside of Huntersville, North Carolina, was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in November while eight months pregnant with twins, fortunately the twins are cancer free
The unlikely scourge of a rare form of eye cancer has affected nearly two dozen people and killed four within a 25-mile radius of a North Carolina town over the last decade – and experts have no idea what’s causing it. The incidence has left the residents of Huntersville, NC wondering why this rare form of eye cancer afflicted so many people in their town.
Ocular melanoma is diagnosed in about 2,500 adults a year, or 5 to 7.5 new cases in 1 million people. Victims are most often men, and odds of getting it increase with age. Contrary to the odds , in Huntersville, nine of the 12 victims who had lived, worked or often visited the town before their diagnoses were female. Six were younger than 30 when diagnosed. Three patients had attended Hopewell High School. Four people have died.
The most recent case was discovered five miles away in November when a 37-year-old woman was diagnosed with the eye tumor while eight months pregnant, leading to a complete removal of her eye. Jessica Boesmiller who lives five miles outside of Huntersville, North Carolina, was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in November while eight months pregnant with twins.
The first cases of the disease that raised alarms came a decade ago when three women who had attended Hopewell High School in Huntersville were diagnosed in their 20s.
Kenan Koll was 23 when she began experiencing blurred vision and after new contacts and glasses could not fix her eyesight, a trip to the ophthalmologist diagnosed her with ocular melanoma in February 2009.
Kenan Koll, 28, attended Hopewell High School in Huntersville, North Carolina, and were killed by ocular melanoma in 2014. Her parents are committed to helping researchers hoping to find breakthrough for the rare eye cancer
Meredith Legg similarly attended Hopewell High School in Huntersville, North Carolina, and was killed by ocular melanoma in 2014 at the age of 26
A year after having her eye removed, she learned that the cancer had spread to her liver, killing her by 2014. Meredith Legg was two grades below Kenan at Hopewell High School and was also diagnosed in 2009.
Meredith, a basketball star at University of South Carolina, died in 2014 at the age of 26.
It wasn’t until a third woman from the same high school, 19-year-old Summer Heath, was diagnosed with ocular melanoma that panic began to swirl of a possible cancer cluster.
Of the studies conducted, the only commonality has been that the victims lived or worked within a 15-mile radius of Huntersville. and three of them on record attended Hopewell High School, albeit, years apart.
In the recent case of Jessica Boesmiller, similarly she experienced blurred vision one night in November that lead to the diagnosis of ocular melanoma that was taking up half of her right eye.
Jessica was eight months pregnant with twins at the time and like nearly half of the other patients, had a complete removal of the eye.
She delivered healthy twins days before Christmas who were found to be cancer-free.
Summer Heath was diagnosed at 19. The Hopewell High School alum joins nearly two dozen people in the area affected by the eye cancer
Researchers have not been able to pinpoint exactly what’s causing the cluster and Dr Michael Brennan, the ophthalmologist leading the efforts, recently said: ‘In all of our studies we’ve never found an environmental or genetic factor.’
Dr Brennan who is leading the study to find what is causing the cancer cluster, received a grant of $100,000 in April to conduct a geospacial study on patients to find the commonality between them. However, no environmental or genetic link has been pinpointed.
The retired ophthalmologist in Burlington, has worked to convene medical experts – including specialists from UNC, Duke University and Philadelphia to help guide the Huntersville work.
The study is examining 18 patients within a 15-mile radius, 13 of who are women and will follow their geographical history.
It well then stretch the boundaries to patients diagnosed 25 miles away, 15 of who are women.
This came after tests done on the soil and water at Hopewell High School, where three of the patients attended, came up negative for any harmful toxins.
A genetic study later found that there were no hereditary causes for the disease.
Ocular melanoma is a malignant tumor in the eye that can spread to other parts of the body and is especially dangerous if it reaches the liver. The disease is diagnosed in about 2,500 adults in the US each year. Most often it strikes in lightly pigmented individuals with a median age of 55 years.
According to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation, if the cancer spreads, there is a 15 percent survival rate and if it does not chances of survival are 80 percent.
Nine of the first 12 patients that Dr Brennan studied were female and six younger than 30 years old.
This is especially unusual for a cancer that is found mostly in men over 60 with blue eyes.
While few of the patients have fit that criteria, two-thirds are young women, leading families and researchers to believe this is more than a coincidence.
Brennan was also struck by the number of cases of ocular melanoma in one town. He estimates he saw no more than 10 such cases in 40 years of practice.
‘There is a substantial number of patients in a relatively small area that’s beyond the usual instance,’ said Dr Brennan. Brennan doesn’t fault the state’s work in the Huntersville cases. But he said some cancer cluster studies overlook key data, such as by using the cities where patients are diagnosed instead of where they lived or worked.
“All I’m trying to do is get the smart people to talk to each other,” he said. “What we want to do is make this a personal investigation, as well as professional. The intent is to bring the consortium back to Huntersville and sit with families and patients and say, here’s what we know and don’t know.”