Cause of rare eye cancer in NC town still unknown; residents losing patience

HUNTERSVILLE, NC (WBTV) — Dozens of concerned Huntersville residents packed into a town hall meeting on Thursday to try and learn more about why there have been so many cases of a rare and dangerous eye cancer called Ocular Melanoma.

“Patience is running out. It is time to find whoever needs to get involved so we can get these answers for our community,” said Michelle Joyce, a Huntersville resident. “So far, we are really not getting the answers that we are asking for.”

Dr. Michael Brennan is a retired eye doctor that is coordinating a study to try and learn more. Brennan says he’s working roughly 20 cases of people that have lived near or around Huntersville. A majority of the patients have been women.

“We want a life story from the patients to determine their geographical frequencies and their time frequencies,” said Dr. Brennan. “There does not appear to be a familial transmission.”

Thursday night, community members asked question after question trying to figure out why more is not being done.

“People are like, ‘we do not know what to test for,’ and we are like, ‘test it until you find something. Test the water. Take samples from all over,’” said Lauren Lowry, a Huntersville resident.. “Lets keep moving forward. We have not done anything. No soil has been tested. No water has been tested and I just can’t wrap my head around that.”

However, Dr. Brennan says scientists are not sure what environmental factors to test.

“There is no known causative association with an environmental toxin,” said Dr. Brennan.

Jessica Boesmiller, who recently gave birth to healthy twins, was diagnosed with the cancer back in November. Experts say the cancer only affects five in 1 million people.

RELATED STORY: BLOG: Cornelius mom diagnosed with eye cancer – same type of cancer in Huntersville “cluster”

“People are now just really learning what is going on in our community and are getting concerned,” said Lowry.

Dr. Brennan says tumor tissue testing is underway to look for similarities among patients and he will travel to Auburn, Alabama next week to study another area with a high number of cases. They hope to find similarities to Huntersville and the surrounding areas.

RELATED STORY: Huntersville mom with rare eye cancer announces newborns are cancer free

Residents want the environmental factors tested.

“I think as a mother of two children, I want to know what I am supposed to be looking for and are there environmental factors that we should be aware of,” said Joyce.

“I don’t know if it’s patience, it’s fear. It is fear,” said Nick Difabio, a father from Huntersville. “We have children and if there is something going on in the area we want to get to the answers as soon as possible.”

The town of Huntersville says they will explore creating a commission that will provide updates monthly to the community and determine if further testing is needed.

The town also hopes to launch a website where people can go for the latest information.

“We understood going in that it would be a long journey,” said Sue Colbert, who lost her daughter to the cancer back in 2014.  “With the support of family and community, I at this point, am not frustrated.”

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