9 Investigates: Mystery shrouds possible eye cancer cluster in Huntersville
By Jim Bradley
Four months after an Eyewitness News investigation revealed an unusual number of cases of a rare eye disease in Huntersville, victims said they are disappointed with the response by North Carolina health officials.
At the same time, a group of the country's leading eye doctors are beginning their own independent investigation.
Last summer, a group of young women came forward to said they are suffering from ocular melanoma. It's an eye cancer that strikes only five people out of 1 million and affects mostly people over 50 years of age. Yet Channel 9 found at least five cases in Huntersville alone.
"What is it? It's something that needs to be looked into. This is real," said Janie Blackstock, who wonders if there's a cancer cluster in Huntersville that's being caused by some environmental factor.
Blackstock's daughter Summer Heath has already lost sight in one eye from cancer. Two other young women died earlier this year from complications of their own ocular melanoma.
Since Channel 9’s report first aired in July, Eyewitness News heard from others who said they too have tumors on their eyes.
"It was shocking," said Huntersville Police Officer Tyler Medlin when he learned last year of his diagnosis. He wants answers from state health officials.
"If there is something that's causing it, which statistics would say, hey, at least that's a possibility, it needs to at least be investigated," Medlin said.
But getting a straight answer from state health officials has been easier said than done.
For months N.C.'s Department of Health and Human Services has refused Channel 9’s requests for an on-camera interview to talk about the possible cancer cluster in Huntersville.
DHHS has said only that it's monitoring the issue and "will take another look" sometime in 2015. That's frustrating for the families of those affected.
Kenny Colbert was the first to tell the state about the Huntersville cancer cases after his daughter Kenan Koll died earlier this year.
He said he feels his questions aren't being answered.
"I'd like for somebody to say we've got one, two, five people working on this and we're making our best effort with this," Colbert said. "But we've not heard it."
N.C. DHHS did send Colbert an email in August asking him to provide a list of addresses of the persons with ocular melanoma from the Huntersville area.
Colbert said he did, including contact information for Summer Heath. But months later Heath, and her mother, said they haven't heard a word from the state.
"If they haven't even contacted me and asked me how old I am, what eye it is, what kind of cancer it is, then obviously they're not looking into it," Heath said.
The concern of Huntersville's eye cancer victims is getting national attention.
At the world famous Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. Carol Shields said she's already meeting with other top eye cancer specialists and launching their own independent investigation into whether there's a common factor connecting the Huntersville cases.
"We are taking it very seriously and actively researching the data,” Shields said.
Answers can't come soon enough for families wilting under the strain of uncertainty.
"There's way too many people to have something so rare in such a small area," said Medlin's wife Jessica." I definitely think there's something else going on."