News reports have been circulating about an unusual number of ocular melanoma cases centered around Huntersville, N.C., and Auburn, Ala. But Marlana Orloff, MD, a medical oncologist who has treated some of the dozens of patients, says it's not clear if there really is any connection between these cases.
Ocular melanoma is a rare cancer of the eye. Between 2,000 and 2,500 Americans are diagnosed with it each year, according to the Ocular Melanoma Foundation.
Four alumni of Auburn University spoke to CBS News about their experiences with ocular melanoma. All four women were diagnosed at younger ages than is usual for this kind of cancer. The Alabama Department of Health told CBS that it's too early to draw any conclusions about whether these cases share some cause and pointed out that these cases don't meet the definition of a cancer cluster. CBS reports that state health officials in North Carolina and Alabama, and a task force at Auburn University, are investigating.
Ophthalmologist Michael Brennan, MD, has been involved with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services' research into the 18 confirmed cases there. Dr. Brennan says that they haven't yet found any explanation for why this cancer seems to be occurring more than normal. Richard Carvajal, MD, an oncologist at Columbia University, is doing genetic testing of tissue samples from the North Carolina patients now, according to Dr. Brennan.
Iris melanoma. An unpigmented ocular melanoma lesion on the iris, with visible blood vessels. Image courtesy of the American Academy of Ophthalmology image collection.
Ophthalmologists don't know what causes ocular melanoma. However, certain factors do increase the risk for ocular melanoma. In addition to getting older, other risk factors include having:
- light-colored (blue or green) eyes;
- Caucasian heritage;
- certain inherited skin conditions, such as dysplastic nevus syndrome, which cause abnormal moles;
- abnormal skin pigmentation involving the eyelids and increased pigmentation on the uvea; and
- moles in the eye or on the eye's surface.
Exposure to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time may also cause a melanoma on the surface of the eye (conjunctival melanoma). In fact, there are lots of good reasons to protect your eyes from the sun.
A Facebook group has been formed by some of the women diagnosed with ocular melanoma to — according to their Facebook profile — raise awareness, encourage annual eye exams and aid in research on ocular melanoma at Auburn University.