33 people from Auburn University diagnosed with rare eye cancer


Lexie Lamont

Uveal melanoma affects the eye.

A rare eye cancer has affected a small group of 40 people who attended Auburn University in the 1980s and ’90s. These 40 people developed uveal melanoma (an eye cancer) at relatively the same time. Each individual diagnosed with the disease either attended, lived or worked on Auburn’s campus between 1980-2001. That’s 40 cases among thousands per year for a disease that typically affects five in one million.

Uveal melanoma is a rare type of cancer that affects several parts of the eye. Only about five out of every million people will develop uveal melanoma in their lifetime. According to Mayo Clinic, this disease usually begins as what looks like a sort of freckle in the eye. However, it’s actually a small tumor, which can lead to poor vision, sensations of lights and flashes, and, possibly, serious damage to the eye. Eventually, the eye cancer can lead to the removal of the eye or the spread of cancer throughout the body.

Doctors are sure this rare occasion is not a coincidence. Researchers held a conference to try and figure out the pattern and be a support to those diagnosed and their families, but there is still no sure answer as to why this is happening. Nobody is sure —and researchers are struggling to find out.

“This is a rare disease for which there isn’t an exact known cause,” Dr. Marlana Orloff, an oncologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia said, “No one’s really uncovered anything that causes it yet.”

As of right now, the Alabama Department of Public Health indicates it is evaluating the recent increase in cases but says it has not identified a common source. Three of the physicians treating the Auburn cases have also organized a task force to help raise awareness and funding for research into the causes and treatments of ocular melanoma.

Auburn University stated, “We need the funding for the research to figure out what possibly could be the environmental cause. There must be some link, and if we can find that link, we’re that much closer to finding a cure and preventing people from continuing to get this.”