An eye cancer cluster 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.
Ocular melanoma is a form of eye cancer that affects five in one million and is typically found in men in their 60s, but more than half of those diagnosed in Huntersville are women in their 30s or younger.
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, 37, who lives five miles outside of Huntersville, North Carolina, was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in November while eight months pregnant with twins.
A $100,000 grant was given to Dr Brennan in April to conduct a geospatial study on patients to find the commonality between them. The study is examining 18 patients within a 15-mile radius, 13 of who are women and will follow their geographical history.
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.
Sue Colbert, the mother of one of the women who died, told Daily Mail Online that she is still looking for answers after tests failed to determine the cause of the cancer that killed her daughter Kenan when she was 28.
Mrs Colbert said she is hoping that the geospatial study will provide answers. ‘I’m hopeful that Dr Brennan will be able to pinpoint some way that our lives interconnect and find some place in the environment that is a bull’s-eye for this disease.’
She and her husband Kenny are still grappling with the loss of their daughter, who was one of the first diagnosed with ocular melanoma in the area in 2009.
‘We don’t believe this is coincidental. There are too many cases in our community of a rare cancer that was considered an orphan cancer” when we first learned about it,’ she said.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
‘There is a substantial number of patients in a relatively small area that’s beyond the usual instance,’ said Dr Brennan.
The most recent case was found in Jessica Boesmiller, 37, who lives five miles outside of Huntersville in Cornelius, North Carolina.
Similar to Kenan, Jessica 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. Recent MRI and CT scans showed that her cancer has not metastasized.
Jessica said: ‘The tumor pathology, however, is not what we would’ve preferred to hear, it was a class 2, prame positive, very large tumor. The stats of metastasis are highest with this class, though definitely not assured.’
Dr Brennan said Jessica will likely be involved in the new study focusing on a geospatial connection.
‘We’re taking dates and addresses of everyone their. Every move, every church, home and any place they spent a lot of time,’ said Brennan.
While some patients are getting fatigued and have opted out of being involved in the study, Sue and Kenny Colbert said they are still fighting for their daughter.
‘There’s a hole in my heart that will never heal and Kenan was so brave, such a fighter and she wanted to live so much that thinking about what she lost and her spirit keeps us going to look for answers,’ said Sue.