The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday March 25th

UNC Hospitals investigates eye cancer outbreak

At least a dozen residents in the suburb of Charlotte have been diagnosed with a rare form of ocular cancer since 2000, with the majority reported after 2010 — but the source remains unknown.

Dr. Stergios Moschos, an oncology professor in the UNC School of Medicine, said this outbreak is particularly rare.

“It is a cancer of one out of six million and now we have an area of 50,000 residents, and (have) more than 10 cases within this area,” he said.

The cancer is specifically referred to as ocular melanoma, which is noted as lethal by the Ocular Melanoma Foundation. But according to the foundation, the disease is treatable, and self advocacy and healthy lifestyle can help lead to a long and healthy life.

UNC Hospitals stepped in to assist with the investigation and offer a higher level of expertise.

Of particular interest is Hopewell High School, Moschos said. Multiple cases of the rare cancer were found in students attending that school.

Representatives at Hopewell did not respond to requests for comment.

“Because there were three cases from Hopewell High School, and there was one guy who had ocular melanoma and he was one of the construction people there, there was a big emphasis that the ground zero for ocular melanoma was Hopewell High School,” Moschos said.

But Moschos said this is speculation and there may be a variety of environmental factors involved with these cases, which he said makes it harder to analyze.

Though Hopewell was investigated and cleared by the county, people in the area are calling for further testing.

According to the report released by health officials, the Mecklenburg County Health Department epidemiology staff performed a comprehensive analysis of Hopewell and the surrounding two-mile radius. The school was found in compliance with North Carolina’s environmental standards. Other environmental factors were deemed irrelevant.

But the report does encourage further scientific research into the causal factors of this disease.

“Because there is no known environmental agent identified as a specific cause of ocular melanoma, where and when the disease started is more than likely not to be found,” the report states.

Moschos said the types of people who have developed the cancer in Huntersville defy the norm.

“This is a disease of the older people, of a mean age of 60 years old — and the prototype of men actually — and now you’re getting predominately women less than thirty years old,” Moschos said. “This is just not normal.”

Crystal Sousa, who started working in Huntersville in 2010, was diagnosed with the disease in 2012.

Sousa tried natural remedies to cure her cancer, but later turned to UNC for treatment. She is now cancer free, having lost an eye in the process.

The feeling in Huntersville is one of uncertainty, Sousa said.

“A lot of people are really freaked out,” she said. “I guess everybody’s thinking: ‘It could be me next.’”


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