After noticing black spots in her iris, Ashley McCrary was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. "I was like, 'Well, I know two people who've had this cancer,'" McCrary tells CBS News. To say that's unlikely is an understatement: Between five and six out of every one million people are diagnosed with the rare eye cancer, yet two of McCrary's friends also had it; the three attended Auburn University in Alabama together. Another Auburn alum was also diagnosed; the women started a Facebook page to look for other alums dealing with the same cancer—and 36 people have gotten in touch so far, McCrary tells CBS. According to the page, most of those affected attended Auburn between 1983 and 2001. Last month, WLTZ reported that at least 31 people who attended or worked at the university from 1980 to the early 1990s have been diagnosed with ocular melanoma. Earlier this month, Healthline put the number diagnosed in the area at 33.
Similarly, a number of people in the Huntersville, North Carolina, area have also been diagnosed with ocular melanoma, also known as uveal melanoma. CBS puts the number at 18, while WFAE reports that 23 people who lived, worked, or spent significant time in Mecklenburg County since 2000 have been diagnosed with the disease. Many of the patients in both areas are young women, Newsweek reports, despite the fact that the disease is typically more common in older people and men. Officials have so far been unable to determine what might be causing the apparent clusters of cases (though the Alabama Department of Health's official stance is that "it would be premature to determine that a cancer cluster exists in the area"), but doctors in Philadelphia are studying the patients, some of whom travel there for treatment in a clinical trial. Doctors at Columbia University are also studying the tumors of diagnosed patients, and Auburn University has put together a committee to investigate. (Read more cancer stories.)