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At least 36 Auburn University graduates were recently diagnosed with a rare eye condition called ocular melanoma. The cases, which are surprising eye doctors and researchers everywhere, have gained national media attention.

This real-life medical mystery brings up many concerns and questions about what the disease is and how it could affect someone, especially from those living in Auburn and the surrounding area.

However, it’s not just Auburn graduates that have been impacted by this disease. Researchers have found cases of ocular melanoma in 18 other patients living in Huntsville and North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte.

What is ocular melanoma?

Ocular melanoma is a type of eye cancer that is related to the deadliest form of skin cancer, subcutaneous melanoma. Though it is the most common type of eye cancer, it is still very rare, affecting fewer than 3,000 people in the U.S. per year.

The disease occurs when melanocyte cells mutate and form cancerous tumors inside the iris or other parts of the eye’s middle layer, also known as the uveal tract. Doctors are unsure what causes this mutation, and many think the cancer is caused purely by chance, as opposed to subcutaneous melanoma, which is often linked to sun damage

When should you be concerned?

It is always important to take good care of your eyes and receive annual eye exams to check for any early onset diseases. However, there are a few things doctors know that may raise a person’s risk to the disease.

Ocular melanoma mostly affects Caucasian individuals, people with red or blonde hair or those with lighter-colored eyes. Genetics may also impact someone’s chances of incurring the disease, though this is only the case in a small portion of affected patients.

Though scientists haven’t linked any environmental factors to the cancer, studies have suggested that people who are farmers, fishermen, welders or laundry-facility employees have an above-average risk to developing the disease. This may correlate with why cases of Auburn University alumni have surfaced, as it is an agriculturally strong university.

Many recent patients were said to be diagnosed with the disease in their late 20s or early 30s. Early symptoms include flashes of light, blurry vision and black spots on the iris, which are called choroidal nevuses.

There is no official cure to ocular melanoma, but doctors can use radiation therapy to shrink tumors or surgically remove them. This often results in removing the entire eye, though this is not always the case.

The disease may be aggressive if not caught early, and it can spread to other organs, such as the brain or liver.

What can you do to keep your eyes healthy?

Although scientists are still unsure about the cause of these recent cases from Auburn University graduates, there are measures that patients can take to screen for it and detect cases early.

The optomap retinal imaging device captures more than 80 percent of your retina in one image, providing doctors with an ultra-wide look at patients’ eyes. This technology can be used to detect early onset cases of many diseases, including ocular melanoma.


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