9 investigates: Cancer mystery in Huntersville

by: Jim Bradley Updated:

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. —

Is there a cancerous secret hidden in Huntersville?

“I don't want to create a scare. But now there's five women that we know of in the area that have ocular melanoma,” said Janie Blackstock.

Blackstock has reason to be scared. Her daughter, Summer, was diagnosed a year ago with an often deadly eye cancer so rare only five in a million people have it.

Yet Channel 9 discovered five cases that all have a strong connection to the same small area of Huntersville near Hopewell High School.

No one is sure what, if anything, around here might be causing cancer but of the five young women we know have been diagnosed with ocular melanoma three were students at Hopewell at different times, two others once lived within a mile of the campus.

That's raising big questions about a possible cancer cluster.

Vicki Kerecmann was diagnosed when she was 31, Courtney Benson at 29 and Summer Heath was just 19, even though most cases of ocular melanoma happen to people over 50.

“It's just too much of a coincidence to have this much of a cluster of people together,” Kerecmann said.

These young women aren't the only ones raising questions.

In Philadelphia, Dr. Carol Shields is one of the country's leading authorities on eye cancer.  She's treating some of the Huntersville patients and admits five incidents of this rare disease is puzzling.

“I think with the cluster that you have it might be worthwhile to have an epidemiologist look into it to see if this is truly a cluster or not,” Shields said.

Mecklenburg County's Health Department did ask the state to investigate Huntersville’s eye cancer cases. 

In a letter dated May 1, the state's central cancer registry said it found "no consistent pattern of cases or any evidence of a clustering of cancer cases" in Huntersville.

The state's letter to Mecklenburg County's health director admits pinpointing the causes of cancers is often difficult.

The few environmental factors that world  renowned researchers have linked to ocular melanoma -- like exposure to the harsh light from arc welding or living close to a chemical plant -- don't seem to apply to the young women from Huntersville. 
Shields said there is another possibility.

“It's possible that this could be a coincidence that will never happen again,” she said.

If there are ever answers, they'll come too late for two families. 

Five years after being diagnosed, former Hopewell student Meredith Stapleton died this spring after her eye cancer spread.

Months later, so did Kenan Koll, whose parents Kenny and Sue Colbert are still pushing the state to find out if their own hometown could be poisoning young women.

“We may not ever get an answer, but for somebody to come in and at least make the effort to dig to the bottom of this. That's what we want,” Kenny Colbert said.

“It's not going to benefit our family.  But there are a lot of other families that could benefit,” Sue Colbert said.

No one from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services would talk on camera, but DHHS says it will take another look at the possibility of a cancer cluster in Huntersville in six to 12 months.

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, who represents Huntersville, said the sooner the better.  

“Even if it’s one day, somebody should come out and take a quick look and see what we think it might be,” Tarte said.

It’s far too real for families still living in a life and death limbo.

“We are on pins and needles. Is it metastasized?  Did it go to her liver?  She has two to three months if it does that,” said Blackstock.

“I’m only 20. I want to live to have kids and a future,” Heath said.

“It's on my mind.  I try to push the thoughts out of my mind more.  I just live with my three kids and my husband and enjoy the moments I do have,” Benson said.