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Study Of Eye Cancer Cases Finds No Environmental Cause

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DAVID BORAKS / WFAE
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Sue and Kenny Colbert of Huntersville lost their daughter, Kenan, to ocular melanoma in 2014.

Researchers still don’t know what is causing cases of a rare eye cancer in Huntersville. This comes after a year-long study tracking where 23 patients in northern Mecklenburg County lived, worked and went to school.   

Uveal melanoma patients aren’t just students at Hopewell High School or residents of Huntersville. A geospatial study of the eyes of cancer patients in a northern part of Mecklenburg County found that a group of patients lived close to the border of Huntersville and Cornelius. Beyond this, scientist John Cassels didn’t find other patterns.

“Nothing directly attributed to the cause of Uveal melanoma at this time," he said. 

Huntersville commissioned Cassels to compare environmental issues like water, air and sites with chemicals near where the patients lived to see if there were any risk factors. Over the last several years, 23 people who at one time lived in Mecklenburg County have been diagnosed with the disease. Many of them young women.  The disease affects about 2,500 people a year in the U.S. - many of them are older.

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In 2015, the state looked into the Mecklenburg County cases and found the incidence of uveal melanoma wasn’t higher than expected. But that hasn’t deterred Kenny Colbert from trying to figure out what is going on. His daughter Kenan fought the disease for five years, but died at the age of 28 in 2014. He said that even though he's disappointed in the results, he's not surprised. 

“This just means we need to regroup and I don’t know what Plan B is," Colbert said. "But this means we need to go to Plan B and Plan C and Plan D because the answer is out there somewhere if we keep digging." 

Genetic testing ruled out a familial link. Doctors at Columbia University will be testing tumors of diagnosed patients. Huntersville town commissioners suggested starting a committee to continue researching the unusual cancer cases. Multiple cases of the same type of rare eye cancer were found in Auburn, Alabama, and Colbert thinks the two towns should work together to see if there are any links.