36 Auburn University Graduates Develop Rare Eye Cancer Years Apart
While ocular melanoma is extremely rare, affecting just six in every one million people every year, 36 graduates of Auburn University have reported that they have been diagnosed with the cancer — including three women who were close friends in their college days. Additionally, 18 patients, all in Huntersville, North Carolina, also have the incurable cancer.
Juleigh Green told CBS News that she was the first of her friends from Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, to be diagnosed with ocular melanoma at age 27, after seeing unusual flashes of light.
“[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?”
Then, in 2001, her friend Allison Allred was diagnosed with the same cancer.
“I was just seeing some mild flashes of light for, say, 7 to 10 days,” she said.
Their friend Ashley McCrary was the next to develop ocular melanoma, after seeing black spots.
“What’s crazy is literally standing there, I was like, ‘Well, I know two people who’ve had this cancer,” she said.
McCrary told her oncologist, Dr. Marlana Orloff at Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, that her friends had the same cancer, and Dr. Orloff and her colleagues are now studying the strange connection.
“Most people don’t know anyone with this disease,” Dr. Orloff said. “We said, ‘Okay, these girls were in this location, they were all definitively diagnosed with this very rare cancer — what’s going on?’ ”
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McCrary decided to make a Facebook page to find more people from Auburn University with ocular melanoma, which is how they discovered the other 36 graduates. Lori Lee, who also went to Auburn but was not friends with Green, Allred and McCrary at the time, has the rare cancer and now sees Dr. Orloff for treatment.
With no cure at the moment, both Green and Allred had to have an eye removed when they were first diagnosed, and the cancer has reoccurred nine times in six different places in Allred’s body.
“Two days ago found out that it’s come back to my brain,” Allred said, “So, I’m actually going to have radiation on my brain tomorrow.”
The four women and Dr. Orloff want to figure out the strange connection that led to the rare cancer, and eventually find a cure.
“Until we get more research into this, then we’re not going to get anywhere,” Lee said. “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.”