Health Team

As doctors work to solve eye cancer mystery, Huntersville family remembers daughters' spirit

Posted May 25, 2018 6:26 p.m. EDT

— A town near Charlotte is still trying to solve a cancer mystery.

At least 18 cases of a rare type of eye cancer have been diagnosed within a 15-mile radius of Huntersville, just north of Charlotte. Now, one family has turned their tragic loss into a quest for answers.

The Colbert family does their best to keep Kenan Colbert Koll's memory fresh. For them, she's always smiling and full of love, but her last five years were spent fighting eye cancer.

"Our daughter Kenan was 23 years old when she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma in 2009," said Sue Colbert, Kenan's mother.

It's called uveal melanoma, a tumor developing in the iris.

"This particular tumor has a higher incidence of spreading to the liver first or to the lungs," said Dr. Miguel Materin, an ophthalmic surgeon with Duke University.

Kenan first came to the Duke Eye Center to have her affected eye removed. Carolina Eye Prosthetics in Burlington crafted one to replace it. It was a perfect match.

Still, 18 months later, the cancer took her life.

"She passed away May 28, 2014," Colbert said.

"We don’t know the cause for uveal melanoma in general," Materin said.

Materin says the higher incidence of cases in Huntersville and a similar pattern in Auburn, Ala., can be addressed only with research.

"We're trying to create this tumor registry," he said.

Affected patients' information is entered into the registry, and the database could reveal patterns leading to a cause.

A state grant of $100,000 is dedicated to that purpose.

Kenan's brother, Pete Colbert, says that, for now, everyone should focus on early detection for any kind of eye issues.

"Go and get your eyes examined once a year. Get your eyes checked, and make sure they dilate," he said.

"We know it's a slow process, but I have no doubt that we'll find a cause and therefore we'll find a cure, and Kenan is certainly helping us do that," Sue Colbert said.

A task force involving medical professionals, researchers and patients diagnosed with ocular melanoma is still working to solve this cancer mystery. Soil, water and air tests are also part of the ongoing effort to find a cause.