The Eyes Have It
Feb 28, 2017 08:44PM
Cluster of Ocular Melanoma Cases in Huntersville Reveals Early Detection is Key
by Kimberly Lawson
When people meet Vicki Kerecman, they have no idea she can't see out of her left eye. More importantly, they would never know she had battled against one of the rarest forms of cancer-and won.
In 2011, the Huntersville nurse says she noticed her vision occasionally getting blurry, like she had something in her eye that needed to be wiped away. Having previously had Lasik surgery, she made an appointment with her eye doctor to get checked. Within a couple of days, she received a diagnosis of ocular melanoma, the most common primary eye cancer in adults.
Fortunately, the disease hadn’t spread beyond the eye yet: Once it becomes metastatic, the prognosis is poor. Kerecman spent a week in Philadelphia for treatment, which included wearing a golden sheath implanted with radioactive seeds over her eye. The radiation took her vision, but she’s now cancer-free. The journey isn’t over, though.
“The chances for me are a lot better because I’m beyond that five-year mark,” she says, “but I’m not out of the woods.” She still gets regular eye checkups and MRI scans to ensure the cancer hasn’t returned or made its way to her liver or lungs.
Kerecman is just one of more than 12 people with Huntersville ties who’s been diagnosed with ocular melanoma in the last seven years. Many people believe Hopewell High School on Beatties Ford Road is ground zero, as three former students, women in their 20s, were diagnosed with the disease. Two have since passed away.
Ocular melanoma typically strikes six people per 1 million each year in the United States, says Dr. Sara Selig, director of CURE Ocular Melanoma, an initiative from the Melanoma Research Foundation to increase awareness and support research of the disease. While more cases have been seen in older men than any other demographic, it’s unclear what causes the disease or how to prevent it.
Huntersville residents have expressed concerns over the abnormally high occurrence rate in their area, and in June 2015, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health released a report that determined officials could not “identify any common environmental exposures specific to the Huntersville area that were likely to be associated with ocular melanoma.”
Although other clusters have been reported, Selig says the cluster in Huntersville is atypical.
“We have been discussing the need for an ocular melanoma patient registry for some years now, and in response to the Huntersville cluster, last March the Melanoma Research Foundation's CURE OM initiative committed to developing and implementing an ocular melanoma patient registry. We spearheaded a grassroots fundraising effort, the CURE OM Unite! Campaign, to raise the initial funds to launch the registry initiative.”
“The registry is a very important initiative,” she continues, “and one that will help us answer questions about ocular melanoma and speed the process of developing effective treatments and, ultimately, a cure for the disease.”
Summer Heath is one of those Hopewell High graduates who was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, though she survived. In a blog for the Melanoma Research Foundation, she passionately advocated for the creation of a registry. “We are not just statistics,” she wrote. “We are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, neighbors, friends and loved ones."
“The local and state government as well as the National CDC, are unable to track the disease or account for those affected,” Heath added. “It takes years to accumulate the data and statistics which leave us in a ‘no man’s land’ of information. Without the ability to track ocular melanoma, find some similarities in our cases, and eventually the cause of ocular melanoma, it will continue to wreak havoc in our community and take the lives of those we love.”
The Melanoma Research Foundation suggests people commit to getting a dilated eye exam annually. Early detection is important, Selig says.
Kerecman agrees. Her journey with ocular melanoma turned out the way it did primarily because her doctors caught it while the tumor was small, she says. “Even if you have 20/20 vision or if you’ve had something like Lasik or even if you don’t have visual coverage, it is imperative to go and get your eyes checked, especially if you have any symptoms or visual changes.”
Kimberly Lawson is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Augusta, Georgia. Visit her website at Kim-Lawson.com.